Never Have I Ever
By now you may have been one of the 40 million households that watched Netflix's coming-of-age teen comedy Never Have I Ever, co-created by multi-hyphenate Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher (The Mindy Project).
The series, led by newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, follows first-generation Indian-American Devi Vishwakumar as she navigates, among other things, high-school, boys, and relationships in the wake of tragedy.
The character of Devi leads an on-screen ensemble that showcases an increasingly authentic portrayal of modern-day identities and narratives, with the reception and acclaim from both critics and audiences to match. The role marks Ramakrishnan's professional acting debut, in which she beat out 15,000 other hopefuls, and became one of the few television programs to be anchored by a South Asian lead.The importance of all this is not lost on the 18 year old Canadian actress, "In terms of representation and that pressure, I feel it, but it's not an unwanted pressure. To me, it needs to happen, and if I have the platform to get that realistic representation, I am going to use it." Read on as Maitreyi speaks to South Asian representation on and off-screen and making her debut in the middle of a pandemic.
As a young newcomer, how did you handle having your first professional acting job with Never Have I Ever debut during these unprecedented circumstances?
In the beginning, it definitely felt surreal because all that hype was only existing online. Besides that, I felt pretty normal. There were times when I first watched the show where it felt like it was somebody else on TV, so it did not really sink in, it was like "Oh that's me? Huh?"
Devi is a strong, multi-faceted character What has been your favorite part about playing this role?
I have to say her confidence. For a lot of characters who are "nerds" or smart, especially when it comes to South Asian characters, they are usually quiet and introverted. But, Devi is confident – she goes after what she wants and she does not dumb herself down. She does some dumb things along the way, but she never dumbs herself down for a guy or pretends to be stupid, which I appreciate about her.
To have not only a young South Asian female lead, but three generations of Indian women at the forefront feels unprecedented, and yet the show is acclaimed across a wide range of demographics. What makes it so universally relatable?
It is funny because I will see comments such as, "Wow, even I can relate to this, a white middle-aged woman." The themes of the death of a parent are not exclusive to just South Asians, or going through high-school - we all go through that. Because of the different things that Devi goes through, people of different cultures and races can relate to it.
And between Kamala (Richa Moorjani), Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Devi's friends – there are many different journeys. Part of the reason I think it's called Never Have I Ever is because all the characters are doing something they have never done and are facing something they have not had to - there is something for everyone to truly take away from and relate to.
Do you feel any pressure or protective of Devi or the show because you are one of a few South Asians onscreen?
I definitely feel protective of the show because it is new and of course my first show; we all work really hard on it. When I see comments like, "I wasn't like Devi in high school" or "This isn't who I am, I waited for representation and I can't relate to that character," that makes sense! I do not blame you.
How can you possibly see the entirety of the South Asian community, which has hundreds of different cultures and experiences within it, how can we all possibly relate to this ONE girl? It's impossible.
Hopefully, as my career goes on, by being South Asian, by being Tamil-Canadian, when I take on future roles, I will be able to open the door for more characters that just happen to be South Asian.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from filming and/or being on set?
I always knew it took a lot of people to film a television show, but I did not realize just how many. There is a job for everybody - there is a guy who just deals with the trees - that's it and he just knows everything about trees!
What character from the show would you be friends with IRL (in real life)?
Fabiola, because she reminds me a lot of my own best friend. And also, Fabiola is an introvert and I love adopting introverts. [laughs]
Any tips or words of wisdom that Mindy Kaling imparted on you during filming?
Both her and (co-creator) Lang (Fisher) told me to be myself; be true to myself and who I am and what I believe in. I have made it this far being myself, and I should not go out there trying to be somebody else.
When it comes to being a person of color and South Asian woman, Mindy would say, "Wow, I'm so impressed that you're doing this all at 18, you're absolutely crushing it." And I stare blankly at her and say, "Mindy you did this when it was way harder, you are a trailblazer."
I am standing on Mindy's shoulders, on Poorna's, on Richa's – on all South Asian actors and actresses' shoulders to be where I am. I am grateful for that and hope one day others can do the same with me.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the series?
I think, especially for South Asian girls, to see me being the lead of a show and thinking "this can happen, this is normal." And in general, the diversity of the show. Not saying it is perfect, but the natural inclusion of cultures and identities, THAT should be normalized.
Not only by the viewing audience, but also other directors, screenwriters, producers that look at our show and realize this works. Diversity doesn't set back your show, it enhances it.
What do you think will be in store for Devi in season two?
I have no idea [laughs]. Personally, I hope that Devi will go on a journey that really focuses on her and loving herself, because homegirl does not love herself. Playing the character, I think she doesn't appreciate herself. So, I'm Team Devi because self-love is important, and not only something that high-school kids can learn from, but anyone.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan can be seen as the character Devi Vishwakumar, in Never Have I Ever, currently streaming on Netflix. The series was recently picked up for a second season.