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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.

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 of the early 2000s Mean Girls-esque white gaze, blatantly failing the Bechdel test.

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, 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.

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. 

Also read: Netflix’s Queer Eye Breaks Social Constructs Even Within The Queer Community

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.

The fact that absence constitutes presence, Dalit identity is completely invisibilized, busting open the empty rhetoric of representation on screen. 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.

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.

Also read: Netflix’s Sex Education Season 2 Talks About Sexuality Seamlessly

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. 

References

  1. The Social Drama of Durga Puja: Performing Bengali Identity in the Diaspora by A. Banerji
  2. 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

27 COMMENTS

    • This article is shit. First of all it’s a comedy show enjoyed by many Indians and South Indians. Its not targeting any caste or religion or black people or any nonsense mentioned in this article. The story is about an Indo-American girl who is in her teen age and has her teen problem just like any other normal teen. It also involves her family who is a little narrow minded in some cases which is absolutely okay. So many indians connect to that show and ya’ll post this sorta article? Dont spread this sort of hatred in the name of any Show
      .

  1. You know that this based on an Indian- American point of view, and bits of pieces actually happen. Also on Islamphobia, even people are marrying outside the culture is looked down upon and people in the Indian community in the USA are bit more open then people in India which is common but not accepted by the families. If this happened in India where a women rejoins her family after divorcing a Muslim man, people will talk and ignore that person. And somehow that is not called Islamphobia in India. I agree that is might came off wrong,maybe they should come at a different angle. And I don’t commend it. And as being India- American the essence of problem do come from real life situations here. And yes you describe it as Mean Girls, but sometimes you want that so you don’t feel different. Everyone has they right in the individuality and what they learn from the culture. But in high school I just wanted to fit in and not be brown. But I understood that later in life being me is great. That’s all.

  2. If a show like Never Have I Ever was held to the standards of your disertation it couldn’t exist. Leave it to Beaver didn’t actually represent the American family either. These shows are not meant to enlighten the world, they are here for entertainment, and if every time a show has an underrepresented lead role, they have the responsibility to represent an entire religion, minority, or gender, you wouldn’t see many made. Chill. Seriously.

  3. I had to skip through the entire article because it was difficult to follow. Using shorter and simpler sentences would make it a more lucid read.

  4. What a crappy article.. Why is it not enough to see such a great representation of Indians and other minorities in Hollywood? What is the author getting by pulling down the one series which is trying to do the right thing?
    And FYI… The author uses way too complex words..is s/he related to shashi tharoor in any way?

  5. Wow lockdown and quarantine is driving people crazy.Amused by the writer’s talent in nitpicking and finding fault about a show, which can be otherwise ignored easily. 🤦🏽‍♀️

  6. I got 99.5 percentile in cat 2008, and have been working in corporates reading tonnes of stuff every day, still I felt a need for a Thesaurus while reading through this. Also the show is pulp fiction, don’t think it deserves a critique trying to analyse deeper sublimal messaging. It seems the author is definitely capable of writing on more complex issues, although would prefer a slightly simpler sentence structure and a bit more common words.

  7. Wow this is the most pompous article I have ever read on this page, feels like the writer is trying to pass off feminism as some sort of “upper class” unachievable badge, while coming across as quite sesquipedalian. This is a comedy show about a coming of age American (who happens to be Indian) , not a documentary.

  8. This scene was important because it reflected reality for a lot of people, definitely my community. There are no overly optimistic spins for the sake of political correctness or idealism. Thus I was personally able to identify with it. The cafeteria scene, and then the following scene where “Hester Prynne” was then essentially denouncing her own choices and highlighting how much easier it is to follow the bandwagon rather than leave it, the show was making an important point. I interpreted it as a much deeper contradiction in the community and in those that “rebel”: no matter how strongly you feel that what you are doing is “right”, you will always want your community to accept/protect you. Especially as an immigrant or first generation American. And just blindly ignoring traditional community standards and beliefs and hoping they see the error of their ways is not working. And it’s a complex and deep-rooted problem.

    Of course, everyone’s south Asian diaspora experience is different. It’s just when you write “(Islamophobic much?)” I feel like you just missed the whole point of that scene lol.

  9. This article, while well-meant, needs substantial editing. Less convoluted erudition and more clarity, please.

  10. Just wish y’all wouldn’t have used such complex vocabulary and references to theories most of us aren’t familiar with in the article. I agree with the parts I could understand, however.

  11. Omg!! No offense to whoever wrote this review or whatever this is, but I gotta tell u few things :
    1) the series ain’t that bad like the way it is portrayed here. Infact I loved it n almost everyone whom I knw who have watched this loved “Devi nonsense”
    2) your review is so so so lengthy n feels so wanna b at places. Proficiency in the language had a negative impact on your writing style.

  12. Its a comedy. Jesus christ. Stop shoving social constructs down people throats. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t , then don’t spend hours of your time writing about it. Move on.

  13. To be honest, it seems like your attempt to be condescending has backfired. Your attempt at writing in flowery language is a fail because this article is riddled with both linguistic and grammatical errors. Your attempt at highlighting a problem has failed, because your article rambles all over the place. You have failed as a writer. Also, please stop getting triggered by non existent problems such as the one you’ve unsuccessfully tried to highlight.

  14. Funny that you mention how this show doesn’t properly address elitism while using vocabulary that virtually no one that isn’t a part of that privileged group will understand.

  15. Wow that is a dense article. Between the extremely academic language and the culture I’m not extremely familiar with it’s just a difficult grok. I gotta read this again later. One thing I wanted to point out is the comment on Islamaphobia. I don’t think the show is Islamaphobic in that scene. The program very clearly shows this shunning of a woman for marrying a Muslim as wrong. Our protagonists do it and the direction and narrative look down on them for it. What it does show is that this situation is “common among this culture”. I think what it does suggest is that Indians maintain a backwards xenophobic culture. Making that scene more Anti-Indian than Anti-Muslim. If you want to make the argument that it doesn’t properly represent Indian culture then there’s an argument for that but I think there’s much less argument for characters doing a negative thing and being morally condemned for it as endorsement.

  16. The show was fun to watch with my 22 year-old daughter who was born in the US.

    But yes, it is problematic. That anti-semitic slur against Ben is MAJOR cringeworthy. How can anyone in this country say “I wish the nazis had killed Ben!” A big no-no. Bad writing and editing right there. And right now, when nazis are ascendant in the US? Deplorable for sure.

    That random Islamophobia thrown in was also grating given what’s happening in India at this time. It was a deliberate rhetorical choice. Here was a chance to educate the many Indian-Americans who are anti-Muslim.

    And I so badly wanted Jaya (haha) to be the happiest one there because she had smashed barriers and made bold choices. They ruined it.

    The show tries hard to be inclusive yet squanders some of it away. Makes you wonder if the inclusivity was just for brownie (pun intended) points for checking off some boxes. The coconutness of the savarna Indian diaspora is well pointed by you. Whiteness and white-adjacency is such a drug for so many—it is the entry into a new caste system while proudly flashing allegiance to the old one.

    Doesn’t anyone wonder if Devi is going to follow in her cousin’s footsteps? Sexual experimentation with white/white-adjacent men and finally caving in to sanskari endogamy?

  17. Dear author,

    I agree with many of the other comments left on your article. NO SINGLE SHOW IS SUPPOSED TO REPRESENT AN ENTIRE RACE OF PEOPLE, OR EXPERIENCES OF PEOPLE. It is actually impossible, and your expectation that this show do that– addressing all of these issues that YOU have projected onto this kind of show– is actually very tokenizing, which is ironic. I find that this is pretty prevalent when POC create art that centers their experiences. The work is put under a microscope and held to impossible standards.

    e.g.
    “But why didn’t it address neoliberalism?”
    “But why didn’t it address class?”
    “But why didn’t it address xyz?”

    This show isn’t pretending to deconstruct any of the issues you bring up. It is a refreshing, heartfelt teenage coming-of-age comedy which is primarily meant to entertain.

    Please reexamine why you feel the need to tear apart this show.

    What could actually move the needle forward on representation? By a.) not tearing apart work by minorities by calling them either “uninclusive” or “unauthentic” or “not representational” (seriously, who gave you the right to judge this? and again, what does that even really mean?), and b.) being open to different interpretations of experiences, because that generosity will bring about even more diverse works by different artists, so that IF there is a show that centers an Indian-American girl’s story it ISN’T expected to be as all-encompassing as you seem to want it to be (again, that’s some subtle tokenism, and is in some ways even more sinister), because there will just be so many other works to choose from. This is obviously a systemic issue, but YOU as a critic are a part of that system.

    I appreciate that you are looking at this show from a critical lens, but it’s honestly really disappointing to see an article like yours.

  18. Question to author are you Indian-American? And have you experience what it is like in an American high school, if you don’t relate then you have no clue? What we go through as minorities, compared to be in India when you are not a minority but a majority don’t know. When you have a identity crisis when all Indian-American do have that, if too Indian but not Indian enough for the people in India. And not white enough because our skin color. And you are forgetting this is comedy!

  19. Supraja, you have every right to hold the show accountable. Anti-semitism and islamophobia should not be passed off as someone’s individual choice or experience. Sure, the show gets some things right. It was great to see brownness not being a token. It was great to see such a smart representation of Down Syndrome. But the show gets some other issues very wrong. That ableism of Devi suddenly being able to stand by magic! Ugh. I enjoyed The Big Sick too. But that film made similar icky choices—the brown women in that film? Sheesh. So yes, celebrate the foot in the door, but don’t ignore the problematic nature of representation when BIPOC do it either. I mean Black Panther was great. But that complete surrender to the idea that the CIA (!!!) will be noble in its ally ship with Wakanda? Haha. I mean, COME ON. Read some US foreign policy history, guys!

    Given that we live in world where fascism and nazism are on the rise in the US and India the show is being irresponsible in its politics. You raise some great questions. We all need to interrogate our implicit biases and invisible privileges.

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