The quintessential American teenager is now an Indian. In Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix series Never Have I Ever, Devi Vishwakumar just looks Indian. In fact, it is easy to forget that she is. For all practical purposes, she is an American teenager.
This is a huge leap from all the identity crisis-ridden movies like Bend it like Beckham or series such as Master of None or any other content released by YouTuber Lilly Singh. There isn’t that wrenching ‘Who Am I’ question anymore, no long self-justifying conversations with parents. Mindy Kaling has liberated the second-generation Indian American from the hyphenated identity in many ways. Much like Priyanka Chopra did in Quantico. Her Indian-ness was entirely incidental.
Never Have I Ever is a telling story of a first-generation Indian American teenager, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, whose Indian identity is also purely incidental. Crisis over her identity doesn’t plague her, she is mostly concerned about drawing the attention of her hot crush, trying to patch things up with her best friends or shutting out her grief over her father’s death.
Even when her Indian American friend at Ganesh puja brought out an uneasy introspection, “Why do I think it’s so weird and embarrassing to be Indian?” Devi didn’t know where to start. “How about every single thing my mom has ever said and done?”
Created by one of America’s favourite comedians Mindy Kaling, Never Have I Ever tries the overused formula of telling a coming-of-age story, but in a novel, not-in-your-face Indian backdrop.
Indian representation in American dramas and sitcoms has come a long way. We started with “semi-legal alien” Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons who became the most prominent Indian face on television during the 1990s. Apu’s representation of Indians can be best described by stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu as “a White guy doing an impression of a White guy making fun of my father”.
An immigrant’s struggle to belong has been documented several times over the years. Movies like Bend it like Beckham might have had their stereotypical undertones but projected a rather wobbly dance of balancing polarising cultures. Fast forward to more than a decade, we have movies like Crazy Rich Asians that finally caught the West’s imagination in a different way, even though it mostly happened under a new form of stereotype: of being ‘crazy rich’.
But all through these years, one thing remained consistent for Indian American characters — the self-exploration of their ethnic identity and a looming crisis over how to balance it in the Western world. Somewhere between Apu and Devi, we finally found our own groove.
The immigrant’s forgetfulness
The advent of streaming platforms has proved to be a breakthrough in telling stories of the South Asian community. There are many shows that come to mind, Comedian Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project or Priyanka Chopra-starrer Quantico. Or Hannah Simon’s Cece Parekh in The New Girl whom every white guy considered “exotic”.
Through the course of watching these shows, a common trend emerges: the characters are forgetful of their Indianness. This seems both intentional and accidental.
For instance, a White friend had to correct Devi on her “common misconception” that no-one in India eats meat. “Only about 20 to 30 per cent of the population in India are truly vegetarian,” the friend tells her.
Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project said, “Oh, there are billions of us.” Her nonchalance in addressing something that’s been such an insecurity for Indian Americans abroad proves that the identity crisis conversation has been long done and dusted with.
In Master of None, Aziz Ansari is only harshly reminded of his Indian identity when he is asked to do an ‘accent’ during a film audition. Priyanka Chopra’s Alex Parrish in Quantico also represents someone who is just incidentally Indian, because there are so many facets to her character of an FBI agent, problematic or not.
This mostly intentional forgetfulness is a welcome change from stereotypical portrayals that didn’t allow an audience to forget about the Indian representation and eventually give the creators a gold star for it. Finally, the stereotypical Indianness is not at the centre of the character’s identity that justifies its sole existence. What’s there to complain about?
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