The first time I felt seen by pop culture was when I saw Bend It Like Beckham in 2002. Like South Asian teen migrants the world over, I saw my own life reflected in the struggles of Jess, the soccer-playing, tradition-breaking young woman in London stifled by overprotective Indian parents.
But even while I dutifully glued a picture of Jess’ love interest (Jonathan Rhys Meyer) to the back of my journal (he was the first hot white guy I saw actively pursue an Indian girl, so I pledged my adolescent heart to him forever), I felt a little icky about the film.
Mostly because when my white friends laughed at the depiction of the Indian “aunties” toddling along the footpath in their kameez-and-sneaker combos, or the exaggerated Indian accent of Jess’ mother screeching “You don’t even know how to cook dhaal”, I couldn’t tell if they were laughing with me or at me.
Was my culture just a spectacle for the white majority, or were they meaningfully connecting with a diverse narrative? To be sympathetic, Jess had to be a pretty-but-not-too-pretty, nice, likeable Indian girl, defined by her culture and her inability to fit into the western world. Where did this leave me, as a fellow Indian girl, who was less compliant, less likeable?
It’s only in the past week, after binge-watching the entirety of the second season of Netflix mostrare, Never Have I Ever (co-written by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher), that I truly understand that ickiness.
Because never have I ever felt so seen by a television show – seen in all of my cross-cultural, problematic, uncomfortable, divertente, sad, angry glory.
Never Have I Ever follows Los Angeles teen Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who is navigating all the usual trials and tribulations of being a teenager: dating, identity, popularity, and the demands of her family and cultural life.
Devi is Indian-American. But Devi is also so much more than that – she’s obnoxious, precocious, principled, divertente, insecure, dolce, and hopelessly out of control when it comes to her emotions. Devi is Indian but she is also a person, not a caricature of an Indian migrant, there to serve as cultural dressing on a white bread sandwich.
While Kaling doesn’t shy away from bringing culture into the story – Devi’s cousin Kamala is in the throes of navigating an arranged marriage set-up; Devi has her textbooks blessed at the mandir, which she also attends for Ganesh puja – it isn’t the defining and only driving force behind the show.
Anziché, much like myself and every other second-generation South Asian migrant I know, Devi’s cultural background is one element of her broader personality and life, which doesn’t in any way detract from or alter her experiences of adolescence as a teen in the western world.
She still makes Tik Tok videos, eats junk food, obsesses over romance and losing her virginity like the rest of her peers. She has moments of both alienation and solidarity that revolve around her cultural background, but they don’t define her any more than her ratbag behaviour to the boys she’s trying to date, or her grief over her father’s untimely death. She is more than any one experience or characteristic.
For so long, I’ve been used to swallowing whatever crumbs I’m thrown when it comes to diverse characters in pop culture, even when their entire plotline revolves around their cultural difference (Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls), and when they’re clearly there to signify the intangible notion of “racial diversity” in an otherwise primarily white cast (Tina and Mike in Glee).
I expect the white characters in TV shows to have complexity and depth, motivations that are well defined and a personality that is individual and unique. But I’m so used to there being a dearth of diverse characters that I forgive their two dimensionality, and tell myself to not be greedy, to just be grateful there’s diversity at all.
In Never Have I Ever, I get to experience what my white friends have had for their entire lives. A character who has many similar experiences to me – I too got a nose ring as an act of teen rebellion only to be celebrated by my parents as an act of Indian femininity – but who isn’t trying to be every brown girl. Because she’s not the only brown girl in the show: there are multiple culturally diverse lead characters, each with their own complex storyline.
I spent a great portion of my adolescence trying to look, sound and act less Indian. I straightened my hair, tried to keep my skin light by avoiding the sun and even trying skin bleaching products, and avoided anything that suggested ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ like the plague. I felt like if I wanted to have the exciting lives sold to me by the white heroines on TV, I needed to look and act like them too.
Maybe if Never Have I Ever existed back then, and I’d been able to watch a front-and-centre teen character with a life a bit like mine, I would have felt like I could star in life, instead of assuming I’d always be in a support role.