When Maitreyi Ramakrishnan landed a role in Mindy Kaling’s popular new Netflix series Never Have I Ever, she was thrilled. To be a leading South Asian character on a major TV series “rather than a sidekick is uniquely special,” she said, especially for her first role in Hollywood.
The character, a 15-year-old first-generation Indian American teenage girl named Devi Vishwakumar, goes through her share of trials and tribulations. During her first year of high school, Devi’s dad dies suddenly and she needs to use a wheelchair because her legs temporarily stop working. The hardships are compounded by the typical difficulties of being a teenage girl: ups and downs with friends, exploring new ideas about sexuality, and pressure from school and family members.
“It’s long overdue to get this representation, and hopefully, who knows, maybe Never Have I Ever will inspire other projects to tackle diversity and representation in a realistic manner,” Ramakrishnan told BuzzFeed News. “Where we don’t even have to keep talking about, ‘Oh, wow, we love your diversity.’ It’s just normal as it is in the real world.”
Never Have I Ever — which has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has stayed in Netflix’s top 10 most-watched shows in the US since it premiered April 27 — tells these stories through the lens of Devi’s world and a diverse cast of characters. Lang Fisher, the show’s co-creator and Kaling's longtime collaborator, said she thinks the new show is an important contribution to television at a time when pop culture can — and should — influence people’s politics.
“For our country, particularly in the current political climate, it's important for us to see diversity in our entertainment and different types of people being celebrated and show those stories,” Fisher told BuzzFeed News. “It’s incredibly important right now to have a show that’s very inclusive.”
According to Fisher, she and Kaling wanted to tell a story for young people that felt so inclusive “anyone watching would see someone like themselves onscreen.”
The show is inspired by Kaling’s real-life experiences growing up, and Fisher said they wanted the characters to reflect the diversity of Southern California, where the show is set, and “make sure that felt accurate.”
“Growing up, I don't think Mindy saw herself in any teen shows, and she wanted to make sure that that would be different for this generation,” Fisher said.
While Never Have I Ever is providing important representation on TV and addresses a number of significant topics, Fisher said the creators also wanted it to simply be a “celebration of how awkward and funny teenagedom is for kids.”
“We’re not trying to be a Riverdale or Euphoria, where everything is highly cool and kids are really mature and into crazy drugs and stuff,” Fisher said. “We just want our show to reflect a realism of how teens actually are.”
Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), Devi’s two best friends on the series, also illustrate the range of diversity in her life. Ramakrishnan said each character in their friendship trio has enough depth that they could stand on their own without just being in the background or an accessory to Devi’s storyline.
“They all hold their own grounds and their different stories can help anybody relate and identify with Never Have I Ever,” she said.
Rodriguez agreed with her costar and said she hopes the series is an inspiration and comfort for viewers who may not often see themselves onscreen.
“Growing up, that’s not something we personally had. We didn't see someone who represented us, and we didn’t see anyone we resonated with,” Rodriguez told BuzzFeed News. “So it’s such a good feeling to be that for younger kids, and maybe they could possibly see themselves in any of the characters.”
The relationship between Devi, Fabiola, and Eleanor on the fictional series is brought to life by their real-life friendship, according to the actors. Ramakrishnan, Rodriguez, and Young all said they’re “sort of inseparable.” When they weren’t filming scenes together, they were hanging out in each other’s trailers behind the scenes and forming a bond that helped make their onscreen friendship even more authentic.
While they had fun filming, the actors also realize the importance of their show and the message they’re sending to fans who are tuning in around the world.
“We go through such diverse obstacles. Each character has their own issues, and I hope people who watch it who don't have anyone in real life to talk about these issues or have anyone who understands can be comforted by watching the show,” Young told BuzzFeed News. “Our characters represent a lot of different things, not just our ethnicity and our diversity but also the diversity in our problems and our stories. I think a lot of young people can relate to that.”