‘Never Have I Ever’ comes to an end. For the show’s stars, it was the ‘ride of a lifetime’

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On the first day that Richa Moorjani walked onto the set of “Never Have I Ever,” she realized she was a part of something special.

For one, she wasn’t the only South Asian person there. For another, she and her fellow South Asian castmates Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Poorna Jagannathan were the leads of the show. The entire Netflix series was centered around characters who shared their cultural backgrounds, and the team behind it was taking cues from them.

Moorjani, who plays protagonist Devi Vishwakuar’s cousin Kamala, recalled telling the props department during a scene at the dinner table that this South Indian family would eat with their hands instead of forks and knives — a detail that was then reflected in the show.

“From that day forward, every day that I was on set until the last day we wrapped up season four, that realization hit me every single day,” Moorjani said in a Zoom call. “I don’t think there was ever a day I took it for granted.”

The fourth and final season of “Never Have I Ever,” the hit teen rom-com from Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, premieres Thursday. And as the beloved show comes to an end, its stars are reflecting back on its legacy.

It changed the game for South Asian representation

“Never Have I Ever” is centered on Devi (Ramakrishnan), an overachieving Indian American high school student who wants to get into Princeton, lose her virginity and land a boyfriend all at the same time. Meanwhile, she’s also grieving the sudden loss of her father and navigating a complicated relationship with her mother.

That she is the lead of the show is in itself significant for South Asian representation. But what made “Never Have I Ever” especially notable is that no one character had to assume the impossible burden of representing all South Asians. The show includes multiple generations of women under one household, each with their own, multi-season character arcs.

“I lucked out with a very amazing role that some people could just dream of,” Ramakrishnan said in a Zoom interview. “In a world where we barely get token representation, let alone authentic representation, (I got to play) a character that has the ability to have so many emotions and be so multifaceted.”

Devi is smart and ambitious, but also bold and brash. She sometimes struggles to manage her emotions and tells little white lies that tend to spiral out of control. Some South Asian American viewers might identify closely with Devi, while others might not – but for those who don’t recognize themselves in her, there are plenty of other nuanced representations to go around.

"Never Have I Ever" defies the stereotype of the nerdy, unattractive South Asian by depicting its protagonist Devi as both smart and interested in sex. - Courtesy Netflix

There’s Nalini (Jagannathan), an Indian immigrant dermatologist and single mother who’s processing the death of her husband, and Kamala, Devi’s biologist cousin who dodges an arranged marriage and faces sexism at work. There’s Nirmala (Ranjita Chakravarty), Devi’s paternal grandmother with a mischievous side, and Aneesa (Megan Suri), a Muslim Indian student in Devi’s grade who excels at soccer and battles anorexia. That’s just to name a few.

That abundance of diverse roles allows the characters of “Never Have I Ever” to bust stereotypes. When South Asians have historically been depicted in Hollywood, it’s often been through tropes like the nerdy, unattractive girl or the strict, overbearing parent.

Knowing that history and learning that the show was labeled under the young adult genre, Jagannathan was initially hesitant to accept the role of Nalini. She didn’t want to play a watered-down caricature of an immigrant mom when her own experiences of being an immigrant mom were so rich and complex. But she said the creators assured her that Nalini would be a three-dimensional character.

“When I read the script, it’s really funny and it’s such a great character,” she said via Zoom. “But they actually go in and they have these beautiful (and complicated) moments. She has a miscarriage, which is never depicted (but is) such a common experience.”

“I knew I was really in for the ride of a lifetime,” she said of taking the role.

It got specific about the characters’ culture

Part of what made “Never Have I Ever” so refreshing was the specificity with which it depicted the Vishwakumar family and their distinct experiences as Tamil, Hindu Indians living in Sherman Oaks, California.

From the way the Vishwakumars take their shoes off when they enter the house to the way Devi prays to the gods before important occasions, that culture is weaved throughout the show without being heavy-handed or overly explanatory. There were also groundbreaking moments like the episode in Season 1 when the family, outfitted in traditional saris, attends a Ganesh Puja celebration at Devi’s high school — a Hindu festival that has rarely (if ever) been depicted in Hollywood.

“So many of the storylines have come from different experiences from the writers in the writers’ room,” Moorjani said. “That’s what makes the show so incredibly impactful. The writing comes from such a place of truth.”

There are other, subtler nods to the Vishwakumars’ heritage too.

Poorna Jagannathan says that Nalini's decision to continue wearing her thaali after the death of her husband was a subtle indicator of the character's grief. - Courtesy Netflix

Throughout the show, Nalini wears a thaali (the Tamil term for a mangalsutra), a gold necklace that serves as a marker of a married Hindu woman. Nalini continues to wear her thaali after the death of her husband Mohan, signifying that she hadn’t quite moved on from the loss yet. The question of when Nalini would take off her thaali was something Jagannathan discussed at length with the writers’ room. And at a pivotal moment in the series finale, she finally does — without great fanfare or explanation.

“It was just so simple and so symbolic without any footnotes,” Jagannathan added.

It proved a show about South Asians could be universal

For all of the strides that “Never Have I Ever” made when it comes to South Asian representation, one of its great achievements was proving that a culturally specific story about an Indian American teenager and her Indian immigrant mother had broad appeal. Forty million households tuned in to watch the first season in its first four weeks on Netflix, Variety reported in 2020.

The show has resonated with so many people because it grapples with challenges that are universal — grief, loss, mental health and family dynamics, said Ramakrishnan. When Devi acts out, it’s not just South Asian girls who can relate to her. It’s people across age, gender and backgrounds.

“When she’s jealous, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been there,’” Ramakrishnan said. “When they see her going through grief, a lot of people can relate to that too unfortunately — of what it feels like to lash out when you’re really just hurting.”

"Never Have I Ever" tackled universal themes, allowing viewers of various backgrounds to see themselves in the show, said Richa Moorjani. - Courtesy Netflix

Over the show’s four seasons, fans became invested in the characters and their trajectories. Aside from the laughter and joy it brought, there were other, unintentional impacts too. Jagannathan recalled an occasion in India when a trans girl came up to her and thanked her character Nalini for mothering her when her own mother couldn’t show up for her.

“It’s actually very rare to find TV families that you feel a part of,” Jagannathan added. “The Vishwakumars are that family for so many kids who desire a sense of belonging.”

Not everyone saw themselves reflected in “Never Have I Ever.” It was a specific story that was largely informed by Kaling’s and Fisher’s own experiences. But the nuance and depth that it offered its characters set a standard for the industry, the actors said, and opened the door for even richer storytelling.

“Even though it’s coming to an end, I really think that the legacy of this show is going to live on forever and pave a path forward for South Asian creatives everywhere,” Moorjani said.

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