Actor-creator Mindy Kaling says her latest show Never Have I Ever gave her a chance to reflect on her own Indian-ness while putting fellow nerds from minority communities, the typical side characters in American shows, in front and centre.
The Netflix show revolves around an academically competitive but hot-headed teenager Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, trying to catch the eye of the school heartthrob while secretly grieving the sudden death of her father. As someone who has always balanced two cultures, Kaling said the coming-of-age story helped her further explore her roots and religion.
“My coming to terms with my Indian-ness is a big part of the show. I was born in the US, raised in a pretty white area, without speaking any Indian languages, so culturally I always felt I straddled the lines of two cultures,” Kaling told PTI in an email interview.
The writer, who co-created the show with Lang Fisher, said a lot of Devi’s conflict and insecurities about her Indian roots are inspired by her growing up experience as a first generation Indian-American.
So much of Devi’s relationship with her faith is inspired by my relationship with Hinduism. I consider myself Hindu, but I also feel insecure about my understanding of my own religion,” she said, adding that the birth of her daughter made her “look at my faith and culture in a new way”.
“… because I really want her to identify as Indian, and that’s kind of up to me, Kaling said about showing the cultural and generational conflict in the show through a gentle gaze.
It was also by design that Devi’s two friends Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young), Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) and even the school heartthrob classmate Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) belong to minority communities.
“So many of my fellow nerds in high school were minorities, yet we don’t often see them on TV as leads. I wanted to put those typical ‘side characters’ front and centre,” she said.
Some of the best scenes in the show are between Devi and her dermatologist mother Nalini, (Poorna Jagannathan) a strong headed, no-nonsense woman finding hard to connect with her daughter.
Kaling, 40 said she had the most fun writing the mother-daughter scenes.
“I love Nalini and Devi’s relationship. My favourite scenes with them are when Nalini threatens her with casual violence, like when she says she’s going to give Devi one smack!’ that she would never actually act upon. That felt like something that a white audience might be spooked by but felt very authentic to their relationship,” she said.
In Devi, Nalini and cousin from India, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), Kaling shows three different Indian women and their engagement with their culture.
“It seemed like a great way to tackle different perspectives on women’s relationship with their culture. I loved being able to write for so many different diverse women, she said.
Ramakrishnan, an Indian-Canadian, was chosen to play the lead after an international casting call and from among thousands of candidates.
Kaling said she found the 18-year-old perfect as Devi because of her natural confidence.
“Maitreyi was the perfect choice for so many reasons. I loved that she was south Indian, like me, which you don’t get to see that often. She’s also just so naturally funny and comfortable in her skin.”
“To be the lead of a show, to really anchor it, you either need experience or to be naturally confident, and she was the latter,” she said.
There were certain challenges in creating the ever-evolving world of teenagers for Kaling, like getting to know about Tik-Tok but young people on her writing staff, young Indian women in particular helped her keep the language and dialogue current to show how teenagers sound these days, she said.
The season one of Never Have I Ever started streaming on Netflix from April 27.