Roughly halfway into the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar’s mother, Nalini, drags her to her high school on a weekend morning for Ganesh Puja, a traditional ceremony honoring the Hindu god. Normally inhabited by hormonal teenagers, the hallways are instead filled with members of a local Hindu society dressed in silk saris and kurtas. Floral garlands wrap around the doorways.
Actress Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Nalini, recalls the “special feeling” of shooting the episode.
“We’re in Hollywood! It’s Netflix!” she says. “And it’s all brown people.”
“Never Have I Ever,” created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, isn’t the first of Kaling’s comedies to feature an Indian American lead character. But it is the first to center on an Indian American family, a rarity across genres. Whereas immigrant parents can sometimes be reduced to stereotypes on screen, Nalini – as well as Devi’s late father, Mohan, who appears in flashbacks – are depicted with unrelenting honesty.
This warts-and-all approach means that the dynamic between Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Nalini, a vital component of the coming-of-age story, can get quite fraught. The headstrong women lash out at each other, their anger thinly veiling the immense grief of losing Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy). Devi at times feels suffocated by Nalini’s parenting, but the show makes sure to shed light on both sides.
“The story of immigrants is told by their first-generation kids,” Jagannathan says. “Those are the people with agency, so they’re the center of their own story. The perspective is (often) only of the kids going through life, and the parents are presented as obstacles to get to what they want to do. The moms sometimes feel like caricatures, only wanting their kids to get married, or being a little subservient.”
“In this series,” she continues, “the perspective shifts a couple of times. The supporting cast is fleshed out and given air and given time. Within the format, it’s rare for you to see it.”
Jagannathan hasn’t taken on many roles like Nalini; American audiences might remember her as Nicole Kidman’s lawyer in the second season of “Big Little Lies,” or as Riz Ahmed’s mother in “The Night Of.” An immigrant herself, she worried after learning “Never Have I Ever” is a young-adult series that Nalini’s story line would be akin to a “Disney version of immigration.” Kaling and Fisher assured her otherwise.
“As an actor, a lot of times you sign on blind,” Jagannathan says. “You sign on (with) trust, and it’s tricky because you don’t really have any scripts. You really don’t know what your character arc is going to be. I definitely just trusted Mindy and Lang would do the character justice.”
Even when Devi is upset with Nalini – whether because of the teenager’s rejection of her heritage, or a feeling that she’s burdening her now-single mother – “Never Have I Ever” finds a way to empathize with the character. Viewers feel for Nalini when she insists on attending the puja for the sense of community, only to be put down by the pitying glances of those who let Mohan’s death define her.
Jagannathan says she was struck by the sense of belonging she felt on set, not dissimilar to the kind Nalini seeks. The large Ganesh idol was a familiar sight. The mangalsutra Nalini wears around her neck to represent her lifelong bond to Mohan reminded Jagannathan of her own mother, who had a difficult first marriage but continued to wear her mangalsutra after her husband’s death. The actress even influenced the set design after she noticed the Vishwakumars’ framed photo of Mohan lacked the kumkum and sandalwood paste that Hindus apply to images of their deceased loved ones.
“I’ve never known that could exist, the sense of being able to have input on every aspect,” Jagannathan says. “In every aspect, you’d be firing on all cylinders because you knew this world. You didn’t have to do research or pretend. … There were a lot of times where I’d speak Tamil, and Maitreyi would crack up.”
The mother-daughter dynamic came naturally to the actresses, according to Jagannathan, who was present during Ramakrishnan’s second audition. Jagannathan likens the cast’s chemistry to the thousand-piece puzzles she has been working on during quarantine. It’s difficult to distinguish pieces among all the others at first, but once you find the right one and place it where it belongs, she says, it feels effortless.
“Never Have I Ever” was met with critical praise upon its release last week, much of it directed at Ramakrishnan and Jagannathan, as well as at the overall writing. Jagannathan was initially drawn to the project by Kaling’s established sense of humor, which the actress says is “built on top of very delicate experiences.”
“There’s something about how she experiences life and spits it out,” she adds.
As the child of an Indian diplomat, Jagannathan grew up in countries such as Brazil and Argentina and relates to Devi’s struggle of navigating a community where she doesn’t always fit in. Jagannathan also filters her life through an irreverent sense of humor, she says, which she drew from while portraying Nalini. The character’s side-eyeing and sassy comebacks are reminiscent of Jagannathan’s own Indian aunties.
“That South Indian sense of humor is inherited,” she says. “The show is being received so well because people feel so seen. For years, we didn’t have anyone to witness us. I grew up a permanent foreigner, and seeing the reaction to the show feels cathartic.”