Diversity in Netflix’s content has validated my youth. Which show speaks your truth?
My wedding day (where this picture was taken) is quite possibly one of the only times when my non-Tamilian friends have seen me dressed in a sari. Growing up as one of the only brown people in the village in South Wales, and then Hampshire, conformity reigned supreme in the playground.
Even at university, with all its societies and students striving to carve out their own unique selling points, I had to be convinced to attend a “Sri Lanka Society” ball. By my 20s friends knew I have a grandmother who lives in an Ashram in southern India, and a few knew that my heritage was Sri Lankan Tamil, rather than Indian. But by and large, I brought nothing of my cultural background to my daily life. I (shamefully) can’t converse in my mother tongue. And my dinner parties have never featured any of my Mum’s home cooking. You certainly wouldn’t find me schooling English friends on Tamil pop culture, or sharing childhood memories that involved not being allowed to have a boyfriend until graduating university, or revealing that I was thrown a public ceremony for starting my period.
But Mindy Kaling and her team of merry (wo)men have changed things with their new Netflix series, Never Have I Ever. I’ve followed Kaling’s career as one of few (albeit now growing) standout Indian writer / actor / comedian combos in Hollywood. Sharing a Tamil background I always root for the creative ones that have made it in industries other than medicine, law, or engineering. (Full disclosure, I’m a lawyer).
The show centres around 15-year old Devi, played by novice actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who secured the role after Kaling made an open casting call on social media which saw some 15,000 potentials come forward. Devi is a bona fide nerd who’s determined to start a new school year with a rebrand, complete with a hot, jock, boyfriend. The show-opener is a familiar scene for folk like me — a maths text book on the Hindu shrine at home, at the beginning of the school year. At times her character takes things to the extreme — she straight out asks her target hot jock for sex, and is a pretty bad friend to her 2 besties (who also up the diversity ante comprising South-East Asian Eleanor, and black-Latina lesbian, Fabiola) fairly frequently throughout the season. But when combined with Devi’s grief over the recent loss of her father, the sensitive portrayal of angst, and hormone-driven emotion leaves you rooting for Devi throughout, and makes the show more than your average coming-of-age teen comedy.
And then there’s all those details that are so relatable to those who share Devi’s first generation immigrant background — yearning to be known for more than just being booksmart, and Indian mothers showing zero pride in their kids, and their classic one-liners such as
“when you get into Princeton, don’t waste your prayers on stupid things like world peace.”
Entertaining the prospect of arranged marriages; going along with those set-ups whilst having a secret boyfriend (as does Devi’s glamorous cousin Kamala played by Richa Moorjani); feeling uncomfortable wearing a half sari to a religious event being held in some random school hall, judgmental “aunties”, and one-upmanship that often revolves around how many Mercedes one owns joins the list.
Aunties are older Indian women who have no blood relationship to you but are allowed to have opinions about your life and all your shortcomings and you have to be nice to them because you’re Indian.
Kaling has taken all these things that myself and fellow brown folk would laugh about amongst ourselves, and turned it into the TV show that it always should have been. Also, though a teen-show, the small homages to the 80s through some of the soundtrack music stylings, and the hilarious narration from John McEnroe (aka all South Asian immigrant fathers’ favourite non-cricketing sports star) brings all those memories back to us Gen Y/early Millenials.
At a time when Netflix has seen subscriber numbers skyrocket amidst COVID-19 induced isolation, there’s never been a better time to connect with people through original content that shines a light on the rich diversity of our society with sensitivity, humour and grace. Be it Latinas via Jane the Virgin, East Asians through the comedy of Ali Wong and Netflix Original movie Always Be My Maybe, people with autism in Atypical, African Americans (Dear White People, and the new series of First Wives Club to name just a couple), and of course all things celebrating the Female — from Orange is the New Black to female wrestlers in Glow, and a whole host in between. You do You.