Never Have I Ever review: Mindy Kaling presents a deeply personal story in this Netflix series, with commendable objectivity
Mindy Kaling may have incorporated a lot of her own life into Never Have I Ever but the show never feels dated because of her incisive, nuanced writing.
Move over Gurinder Chadha, make way for Mindy Kaling.
Chadha, a British filmmaker of Indian origin, is known for coming-of-age films revolving around Indian students in the West, the UK to be specific. Her 2002 directorial Bend It Like Beckham was a breakthrough, and her latest film Blinded By The Light received decent reviews in the festival circuit. But Kaling's new Netflix show Never Have I Ever shows how refreshingly different the life of an Indian student in the US can be portrayed, given the setting, time period, and most crucially, the writer.
Both of Chadha's films were structured as standard coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water dramas where British/American cultural influences like football and Bruce Springsteen were used to emancipate the disoriented protagonists. But in Never Have I Ever, the underdog template is not at play. Owing to the format, which allows it to spread across 10 episodes, one is transported into the word of an Indian-American schoolgirl and get a walking-by-the-side perspective rather than just a fleeting glimpse as an outsider.
Devi here does not need a passion to break free of societal pressures but achieves it the hard way through coming to terms with her grief, insecurity, and mental roadblocks. That is why the show is interestingly titled Never Have I Ever. It may be a drinking game to most of the millennial generation but for Devi, it is a steep learning curve.
Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), the daughter of dermatologist Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), is an American girl of Indian origin, undergoing daily struggles of discovering herself in an American school. In the first scene of the show, which is also the teaser, Devi prays in front of a number of Hindu god portraits, pleading for her body parts to mature where they should in order to make her more 'desirable' and eventually for a hot boyfriend (the sporty-type who will "rock my world").
Ironically, her name is Devi, which translates to goddess in English. No brownie points for guessing it is not all the half dozen gods who answer her prayers. She ends up doing it on her own, albeit not without making twice as many blunders. To make matters worse, she loses her father to a cardiac arrest very early, which leads to her mother becoming even more fiercely protective (and annoyingly Indian) of her. She has to navigate through her impossible mother, body issues, racism, unsuccessful affairs, dwindling friendships, a race to the IVs, and the grief of losing her father, her primary emotional anchor.
Needless to say, Kaling packs in all of the above issues but seldom makes the narrative feel as grave or preachy. She has often opened up on her own struggles to fit into a society that considered her as an outcast, that too at a time when the world was not this globalised. She is the author of two deeply personal books, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and Why Not Me?. The very titles indicate the 'all versus me' mentality the migrant community frequently encounters. She asks all the right questions here but also ensures to peek inside and confront the inner demons rather than just playing the victim card of genuine yet insurmountable problems, like racism and father's death.
As is clear from the shows she has written in the past, like The Office and The Mindy Project, Never Have I Ever is enriched with sharp observational humour. The hilarity does not arise from situations but the dialogues and treatment. Having scaled the ladder as a person of Indian origin in the US, Kaling surely has incorporated a lot of jabs directed at her into the dialogues of her show. Thus, the humour is self-deprecating and brutally honest but not to the point of being racially condescending. Since she grew up at a very different time, she may have ended reinforcing a few stereotypes about Indians but mostly is conscious enough to subvert those cleverly.
Though it is evident she has mined significantly from her high school experience, she makes sure the show does not feel dated. Along with the more evolved style of storytelling, what makes Never Have I Ever vastly contemporary is the various references to millennial slang or new shows. These references are slipped in casually, and never in a conceited manner to appear woke. For example, girl 1 tells girl 2, "I didn't push her into the pool! She slipped." to which girl 2 responds, "Big Little Lies." Or when girl 3 tells Devi, "I get why Riverdale is so interesting. They're from different backgrounds but all of them are hot."
All of these wise cracks and the fundamental premise of being an Indian girl in the US operate within the broad framework of a regular sitcom-style narrative. It is neither a campus caper nor a romantic comedy, though there are abundant shades of both. There is college politics, a fellow nerdy rival, and the college hunk with washboard abs (though refreshingly, here he is of mixed descent as his father is Japanese). But all the tropes Kaling sticks to compose her unique treatment. She satirises conventional rom-coms in a way that it is a homage to all the shows she has lapped up on yet does not rob them of their inherent ridiculousness.
But the spoofing is not achieved through verbose background score or loud reactions. The irreverence is conveyed strictly through laugh-out-loud dialogues. The irreverence is conveyed strictly through laugh-out-loud dialogues. For example, when girl 1 runs away after getting betrayed by her mother, the mom screams, "Wait! Don't run away even though it looks very cinematic to emote that way." These tropes bridge the narrative gaps yet do not come across as submitting to their indispensability. But these plot devices sometimes do get to the viewer who may not forgive the writing that is smart but not immune to deceptive convenience.
Kaling's narrative structure, however, is still in conformity with the guide book to writing television. She may have broken new ground through dialogues, tone, and treatment but the syntax cannot escape the sitcom skeleton. In a couple of episodes, there are recaps and a narration (a very interesting voice at that) that get the viewer up to speed about the events unraveled till that point. But on a streaming service like Netflix, all these viewer-friendly tools should be thrown out of the window, courtesy the culture of binge-watching.
Ramakrishnan, who looks eerily similar to Kaling from The Office, delivers a fully realised performance in her debut role. She is messy, worth rooting for, and also immensely watchable. Poorna Jagannathan, after getting a short strife in HBO show Big Little Lies, is back on screen to mark her best performance till date. She lets her hair down while playing an aggressive no-nonsense single mother, who is excessively protective of her daughter and hopelessly obsessed with selective Indian rituals. During an emotional high at the end of the show, she makes her character drop her guard in a deeply felt manner. Her occasional softening probably stems from Kaling's experience of raising a daughter as a single mother, and how it is a struggle for her to break the chain and not stifle her daughter's freedom.
Sendhil, who played the lead actor in Raj and DK's 2011 Indian crime comedy Shor In The City, makes the father Mohan look very endearing and accessible. Darren Barnet, the object of Devi's desire, is not just reduced to that but is fleshed neatly into a determined sportsperson, who has crystal clarity about what he wants, and is fairly unassuming about his popularity and irresistible appeal.
Kaling and co-writer Lang Fisher, along with directors Tristram Shapeero and Kabir Akhtar, align all the technical departments and a decent ensemble in a way that they bring alive Devi's journey, with all her follies, adventures, struggles, and attempts at reconciliation.
Of all her deeply intuitive writing shows never has Mindy Kaling ever penned a personal story more objectively.
Never Have I Ever is streaming on Netflix.
All images from Netflix.
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