By: Bhuvanesh & Anuraag
Since so many Hindus live in North America and make important contributions to the American quality of life, many Hindu-Americans have pointed out the need for a proper depiction of their collective culture in the Western hemisphere. We at Bridgewater Hindu Students Council believe that this need is very prevalent in the media. Therefore, when Never Have I Ever came out in April of 2020, it piqued our interest, as it had the potential to be a step closer to the adequate representation Hindu-Americans are aiming for. However, we were disappointed to find that this was primarily not the case.
Never Have I Ever is a Canadian Netflix coming of age show produced and partially written by television veteran Mindy Kaling. Its characters, plots, and overall message cause it to fall incredibly short of what it could be. While it is a positive for Hindu-Americans to be shown onscreen, the show does not depict this group, our group, as well as it could have. It is important that its inaccuracies are highlighted to ensure that these representational mistakes are not repeated in the future. The show’s protagonist, 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar, just wants to be a ‘normal’ teenager. Whether that means going to parties or getting drunk with boys, she crosses the line from ambivalence towards her religion to Westernized denial of religiosity. As a result, she is not, in any way, an accurate representation of what the standard Hindu-American teenager is like. She is, in every way, a Western caricature of a teenage Hindu girl, and any positive aspects of Hindu culture that can be gleaned from the show are completely removed from her character.
From the very beginning, the show disrespects Hindu worship in attempts to appeal to a Western audience. Devi’s attitude towards prayer is best described as nonchalant. She prays informally, starting off with, “What’s a-poppin?” She then proceeds to pray as if the Gods were inferior to her and were obligated to fulfill her wishes. These wishes are not any better, as for example, she prays to be invited to a party with drugs and to sleep with a random boy. All of this, which happened in the opening scene and sets the tone for the show, completely diminishes Hindu worship, as this prayer conveys such a lack of respect. In addition to this, it also takes away from the importance of worship, as the average Western viewer will be led to believe that prayer is neither for purification nor submissiveness, but for casual and inappropriate requests that do not facilitate a meaningful long-term impact.
In reality, Hindus have great respect for our Gods.
Furthermore, the show features a lot of somewhat offensive comedy in its attempt at Hindu representation. Episode four is titled “… felt super Indian.” US Hindus take offense to this title as it stereotypes being Indian culturally as an exotic, separated thing from being normal and American. In addition, in that episode Devi goes to a Ganesh Puja. Immediately, Hindu women are, on numerous occasions, shown to be making fun of each other, characterizing them as hostile and unpleasant. This is taken even further when many women haughtily boast about their family’s achievements and ostracize a woman that divorced a Muslim man, implying that narcissism and Islamophobia are also very common at events purely intended for a religious purpose. Moreover, they meet a priest who is supposedly able to read the mind of Kamala (Devi’s cousin) about her anxieties regarding marriage. This sets an unrealistically high bar for real Hindu priests. Inversely, in an attempt to bolster sales on his web-store, the same priest promotes his website called “coolhindude.com.” This further downplays Hindu worship, for devotees and religious leaders in Hinduism must be treated with respect, and portraying priests as self-promoting con artists is inherently disrespectful.
Additionally, a particularly egregious example of Hindu misrepresentation occurs in episode 3, “… gotten drunk with the popular kids.” Devi thinks she sees her deceased father in the form of a coyote. She talks about the phenomenon to her therapist, who then tells Devi to try to interact with the coyote as if the coyote were a reincarnated form of her father. While drunk at a party, Devi sees the coyote again. As soon as she tries to speak to it, the coyote attacks her, causing her to take a trip to the hospital. This portrays the Hindu ideal of reincarnation in a negative light. Instead of attempting to simplify it for a modern audience, Kaling simply opted to accept the Westernized view of reincarnation instead. The way in which she approached the idea was more reminiscent of witchcraft and sorcery than it was of karma. The idea that her father might have come back as a coyote to punish her for drinking is completely different from what dharma and moksha are all about. Like with worship, the significance of this belief is downplayed when the characters around Devi tout her as a sensation known as ‘Coyote girl’ for having had the hallucination when drunk. Therefore, even within its own Westernized framework, the show still manages to be problematic, because she is not even aptly punished for her drunkenness.
However, the show does a few things right, and those aspects cannot go unacknowledged.
An accurate portrayal of the Hindu-American struggle came from one of Devi’s friends at the Ganesh Puja. He spoke about how he was motivated to reconnect with his Hindu identity after seeing that the Native Americans on his college campus were able to do so with their own identity, and he wanted to feel as proud as they did about their heritage. This is the only scene that perfectly demonstrates the identity struggle that a lot of Hindu Americans face due to how societal expectations sway them to delegitimize their religion. Moreover, the tone of the scene can be interpreted as a call to action for Hindus to follow in the footsteps of other cultural and ethnic groups and assert pride over their religion.
Another progressive step that the show takes is its depiction of arranged marriages, though it takes a while to get there. While arranged marriages themselves are not exclusive to Hinduism, they are a large part of Hindu culture, so our scrutiny of them is valid in this discussion. The beginning of the season was concerning, as Kamala was hiding a relationship from Devi’s mom, who was trying to set her up in an arranged marriage. Then, Kamala breaks up with her boyfriend to ‘follow her duty to her family,’ which would have been problematic if it were some sort of altruistic antagonization of the institution as a whole. Yet, after having gotten back with her boyfriend, she ultimately chooses to accept her arranged marriage because she genuinely falls in love with the guy. This validates the home life of so many Hindu-American children and teenagers because it does not take the traditional route of demonizing an institution for the sake of it. To put it bluntly, we do not want to be told that our parents do not love each other merely because of the circumstances of the institution they were married within, and the show has the decency to provide an authentic representation of that institution.
Even disregarding any single aspect of its Hindu representation, the biggest problem that we have with this show is that it simply is not sufficiently entertaining. And, considering that this is a big break for Hindu depiction in Western media…
Representation means very little without some sort of entertainment value attached to it. If Never Have I Ever were either a drama or a comedy, it would probably be offensive, so it is understandable that Kaling’s team did not take that route. Moreover, this is her show, and she can fulfill her creative energies however she pleases, even if we have seen the same teenage romance story a million times before. However, since the show was positioning itself as a big break for Hindu representation, it needed to derive more of its entertainment value from informative exchanges about Hinduism. The show didn’t really use its characters and their unique identifiers (Hindu, Indian, etc.) in a creative or groundbreaking way. We think that it’s wrong to settle for a show that‘s only claim to fame is that it isn’t overtly offensive with its depiction of Hinduism. There is something to be said that discussions about this show hardly ever go beyond its attempt at representation. We need better, more entertaining representation.
This isn’t it.