Posted by Supraja R
Netflix’s new series, created by Mindy Kaling (and Lang Fisher), titled Never Have I Ever is as of today, the number one viewed content in India on the platform. Its promotion and branding have surfed the representation wave – claiming to be inclusive of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) – while also staking claim to alternative sexualities gracing the cinematic scape of a teenage coming-of-age romcom.
While it stands true that the investment in a coming-of-age venture of othered bodies, particularly sensitized to aspects of race and of catering to South Asian diasporas, are only just picking up on mainstream TV; it is also true that these ventures yet again repackage the formulaic thrust of the early 2000s Mean Girls-esque white gaze, blatantly failing the Bechdel test.
What warrants discussion about this (poorly researched) series called Never Have I Ever, is the fact that it fails on many levels to engage the spectator in a visual and narrative structure that could be “truly” representational or critical of the socio-cultural, political and aesthetic baggage it claims to give space to. The meat of this argument lies in episode 4, dedicated to Ganesh Puja, wherein the protagonist Devi is assuaged to ponder and revel in the performative of her ethnicity, but not so much as to truly engage with what must be accrued of the nexus of her (Tamil) Savarna social habitus. The aesthetic issues of the montage of what Ganesh Puja means in the homeland notwithstanding – coincidentally there are a few seconds of a Durga Puja Pandal at the end of it, and we know that they are two separate festivals; we see that the primary need to dissect the Southern California Hindu Association’s fanfare of this festival is much more complex.
Firstly, this complexity can be deconstructed using the Victor Turner’s concept of Social Drama as a launching pad. As per this concept, there are four phases that characterize the conflict mediated through social drama: breach of norms, crisis, redressive action to solve the crisis, and social reintegration or schism (moving away). The breach of norms is of the diasporic displacement that is felt and depicted most by Dr. Nalini (Devi’s mother) that is further solidified by the crisis experienced on losing her husband.
This crisis is felt intensely by Devi as well, laced with the grappling of her identity that founds the breach of norms in the American landscape. The redressal of this occurs through the performative of the Ganesh Puja, that is celebrated with high intensity and fervor in the diaspora’s landscape, though that again is debatable.
Whether reintegration or a schism truly occurs is not our takeaway here. The issue lies in the fact that the social drama of this episode (also reflective of reality) isn’t subversive in nature, as Turner would have it to be. The crisis experienced by Devi and Nalini (when they are already branded “alien” figures) pushes them to question what balance and harmony mean to them. As per Turner’s concept, the redressal through the participation in puja can be viewed as a rite of passage that is an embodied experience. This embodied experience is part of this larger ‘antistructure’. Unlike a ‘structure’ (top-down form), the antistructure is more democratic, allows for multiple perspectives, and works beyond an authority, calling for critical thinking. This limbo experienced by the participants opens up a freedom for perspectives, a state of mind that Turner calls a liminality. It thus becomes an embodied experience, creating a sense of subversives. In the show however, this sense of subversives, if anything, only makes itself evident through the mise-en-scène of the Puja at the High School, particularly at the cafeteria. The cafeteria trope and clique formation is seen layered and corresponding to the Savarna-scape of casteist clique formation.
In this scene in Never Have I Ever, we see the nuclear group of Nalini, Kamala and Devi swerve to avoid a table where Jaya Kuyavar (Aarti Mann from The Big Bang Theory) is eating at, to avoid the association with one who is ostracized for having married and divorced a Muslim (Islamophobic, much?). Apparently, they are already teetering in social standing, being borderline outcasts given Nalini’s widowhood and Devi’s erstwhile disability. This problematic dialogue is further concretized by Jaya’s self-deprecation (“the Hester Prynne of the Indian community”) and dialogue with Kamala for having transgressed social norms – urging the latter to give in to caste endogamy. This cannot be lightly taken as mere narrative as social disenfranchisement and honor killings are, but two of the consequences of those who refute such norms.
Secondly, the contextualization of Ganesh Puja in Indian Independence history shows us how it was a tool of mobilization used by Bal Gangadhar Tilak to catalyze a sense of nationalism against colonial power. However, post globalization and neo-liberal politicization, the Puja is a force to be reckoned with – assuaging an identity linked to the right wing rise of power. We see how urban centers like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad are transformed into spaces where the fusion of the binaries of the private and public, family and world are blurred where issues of caste, class and religiosity spill into the bustling everyday of these cities. Indeed, there is a blurring of the strict binaries of the sacred and the profane in this carnivalesque sphere of celebration– where one looks at the images of the Elephant God, and is filled with devotion and blessed with grace, i.e., the gaze of salvation floods the sensorium.
This meaning-making process of salvation is ascribed to the interaction of site and spectator/participant, i.e. the bond formed by the vision of the deity and the mind overwhelmed by perceived divinity, allowing for the temporary sacred nature of the high school to be legitimized in its transformation (from a mere school to the sanctum) for the duration of the Puja. The fact that this is a festival which exhibits consumer culture in full form, with currency being exchanged at unprecedented rates adds to the elements of hegemonizing as mediated through state machinery.
Indeed, the statement is loaded when Nalini scoffs with the dialogue of “Our Pandit in an Uber? What’s next, PM Modi on Postmates?”. This statement in Never Have I Ever recalls a bridging to when Harish (Devi’s friend/cousin?) recounts of his roommate in Stanford taking pride in being Native American – this, of a reclamation of identity and that of the histories of genocide is seen likened to that of a Savarna upper caste individual’s return to his roots.
Absence constitutes presence, Dalit identity or even that of indegenous communities, is completely invisibilized – busting open the empty rhetoric of representation on screen. We do not know if the family is ethnically Eelam Tamil or Tamil Indian either. The issues writ by Maria Qamar in her book Trust No Aunty (2017) is seen further co-opted into the Aunty narrative, coming across as 2-D, with Kaling not taking stock of the Aunties’ behavior and attitudes echoing the consequences of the marriage of upper-caste supremacy and patriarchy.
Of the chiffon, “itchy” sarees – why is it so recurrent that most cinematic ventures depicting diaspora (whether it be Harry Potter 4 and the Patil twins at the Yule ball; etc.) do not live up to the exquisite diversity of textiles with traditional handloom wear? It is safe to say then that Never Have I Ever, expected to be a show so full of hope, restricts itself to a marginalized visual narrative. It washes its hands of being accountable, and pushes back the very tenets of inclusive, responsible and critical visual storytelling at this turn of the decade.
- The Social Drama of Durga Puja: Performing Bengali Identity in the Diaspora by A. Banerji
- Heterotopic Assemblages within Religious Structures: Ganesh Utsav and the Streets of Mumbai by S. Gopinath
Supraja R is a Masters scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. You can find her on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Los Angeles Times