Netflix’s Never Have I Ever: Maitreyi ‘Devi’ Ramakrishnan Talks About Season 2 and Much More…
Co-created by Mindy Kaling, Never Have I Ever on Netflix is an important step in terms of representation for Indian diaspora culture in western entertainment. In the show, Canadian actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays teenager Devi Vishwakumar who is an honour student who plays the harp and has dreams of studying in the Ivy League. Her love life even as a sophomore is practically non-existent, so it’s a welcome change from the regular nerd plot in sitcoms that she and her two best friends embark on a journey to ‘get boyfriends.’ Meanwhile, Devi also has to deal with the death of her father and her dual cultural identity. Leaving the fact aside that Devi is a second-generation Indian-American, the perils of growing up are identifiable for anyone of that age, and that’s what has made this show such a hit since it premiered on 27 April 2020.
In a quarantine special ‘Variety After Show’ presented by National Geographic, Never Have I Ever’s young star (who is slowly becoming a household name) Maitreyi had an insightful conversation in which she spoke about how life has changed for her since the show began and what we can expect for Devi in the second season. Speaking from her home, Maitreyi didn’t have the chance to attend her show’s fancy premiere. She is currently quarantined with her parents, grandparents, brother and dog Melody.
Never Have I Ever is currently trending on Netflix at #1 but Maitreyi feels that she’ll “always just be a girl from Mississauga,” and doesn’t really feel like a superstar. “I’m normal… I’ll always be normal.” Maitreyi has been receiving rave reviews for her performance on the show but fans are in for a little disappointment because we have to trust her when she says that she genuinely has no clue when the second season will drop. The novel coronavirus has halted all production on films and television at the moment, and we may or may not have to wait longer than expected.
The road to finding the perfect Devi for the show has been rather offbeat and started off last year when Mindy Kaling sent out an open casting call for the role of the high schooler, her older cousin from India, and her 40-something mother. More than 15000 applications were received before Maitreyi was zeroed in for her ‘first job ever.’ She was shown the post by her best friend, and the same friend motivated her to apply because she was going through a tough time at school and wanted Maitreyi to do something to distract herself. In fact, her closest friends and both her parents have been on set while she was shooting in Los Angeles. But she’s also made a small group for herself with her co-stars on the show, Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez, who plays Eleanor and Fabiola and shared that they would go out together as well.
Maitreyi calls Mindy her ‘first boss’ but treats this gig like any other job. Her drama teacher has helped her stay humble. “My drama teacher always taught me if you’re a star (or) if you’re the lead of the show, that means - You do not matter that much. You are just the same as everyone else,” she recalls. “That was my mindset coming to set, I didn’t think I was anything crazy special. One thing I won’t forget is just having everybody be so kind as to teach me everything that I asked. I asked so many questions. I wanted to learn everything — between hair and makeup to lighting and sound. My fellow actors, I love them so much because they’re the ones that gave me the confidence to do the performance I did. I couldn’t have done that just purely out of high school. A part of that process was my cast members being such great homies to me and supporting me.”
As mentioned before, Never Have I Ever is a simple coming-of-age story but deals with very real issues. Devi’s character deals with the sudden demise of a parent and that has resonated with many of her fans, who have been sharing their thoughts with her over social media. “‘Thank you, this made me really realize I have some unpacking to do with the loss of a family member’…That’s all I wanted from this show. Emmys for the cast, Emmys for the direction, a Nobel Peace Prize — I’m not opposed — but, in all seriousness, this is all I wanted from the show.” But the show is full of comedy and lighthearted moments as well, and young girls surely relate. “It’s awesome because I’m seeing so many people saying, ‘Oh my God, I can relate to this so much.’ Whether it’s something as simple as one of the arm hair jokes — because let’s be real, even though I’m 100% confident with my arm hair, there are days where I go up to my father and I say, ‘Why did you do this to me? Why can’t you give me anything else?’”
It is only in the last few years that a lot of stereotypes related to South Asian culture as represented in American shows have been broken. Mindy Kaling herself has played Kelly Kapoor in The Office and Dr Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project, both characters representing a more realistic image of the modern Indian-American woman. Her being a co-creator on the show serves well for it but Maitreyi understands what it means to have felt underrepresented so far. Citing the example of Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory, she talks about how people of colour are often comedic sidekicks. “I can speak for myself here when I say that we’re so used to being sidekicks, we’re so used to being comedic relief. And sure, there’s nothing wrong with being a sidekick or being funny or the comedic relief … but it isn’t okay when it’s offensive and when that’s all you get. Suddenly, all you’re doing is you’re seeing yourself as a sidekick, as not as important. And when you do relate to a character, they’re usually Caucasian and then you realize you’re living your life in the shadows as a person of colour and you’re only able to see yourself through white characters, which is not totally okay either.”
The writing in 'Never Have I Ever' also puts in the effort to establish and acknowledge Devi’s unique upbringing and that the people around her make the effort to sensitize themselves about her culture due to her close relationship with her. Maitreyi thinks that putting effort in something simple like even learning how to pronounce someone’s name really shows respect to their culture. She was pleasantly surprised when people in LA asked her how to pronounce her full name when she first arrived. “I love my name. Why would I change it? You deserve to be called the way you want to be called, no matter what.”
There’s still a lot in store for Devi in season 2. The show has ended on a cliffhanger where we don’t know if she will end up with Ben or Paxton, both of whom have played potential love interests. But for Maitreyi, it’s really about Devi’s own development as a person which is important. She needs to deal with the grief of her father’s death, embrace her culture, and appreciate her family.
“(She needs to) be appreciative of her family and her friends because her friends do a lot for her. Her friends really are her day ones. And also understanding where her mother’s coming from. That is something that we’ll be able to have a lot of audiences relate to, understanding where our parents are coming from even though they might not go about doing certain things the best way possible,” she says. “Then also the idea of approaching that grief — confronting it, having that battle, even though it’s something uncomfortable to think about, (bu)] actually just running toward it and facing it, dealing with it head-on. And then number three, of course, embracing her culture because that is so important in a world where identity is everything. It’s how you portray yourself. It’s how you show yourself to the world and how everybody will view you, but also how you accept yourself. And I think if Devi does those magic three, she might be a little bit more at peace with herself.”
Finally, at all of 18, Maitreyi ended the chat by reminding her fans to ‘stay open-minded, and have more conversations to be open to more perspectives, and have more empathy.’
The first season of 'Never Have I Ever' is available to stream on Netflix.