I’ve never really minded the lack of Indian representation on popular Western TV shows that much. I’d just complacently watch whoever came on screen, as long as it made me laugh or held my attention for longer than five minutes.
Naturally, I watched Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” which follows an Indian American teenager, Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), trying to make her way through high school’s trials, tribulations and traditions. While I agree with some of my friends’ sentiments about parts of the show being a bit too whitewashed for our tastes as South Indians, as a South Indian teenager born and raised in America, I do still connect somewhat to Devi’s experiences.
But what struck me the most about the show — the aspect that moved me emotionally — was the relationship between Devi’s parents, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy). The show first depicts them as a newlywed couple, as the two of them are moving into their first home in Southern California, filled with optimism and pride after finally finding a place for their culture in America. I saw my own parents reflected in them so clearly.
The scene where Nalini and Mohan take a ride on his moped down the Pacific Coast Highway after their failure to have another child is an especially touching one, one that moved me to tears. In fact, every time I saw Mohan on screen, either comforting Nalini or caring for Devi, I felt tears well up in my eyes. Whether it was from finally seeing an intimacy that I could relate to portrayed so beautifully and accurately on TV or the sadness of the moment, it was freeing to me.
My parents moved to America in 1998 to start their lives as a married couple. They bought their first apartment in the South Bay, and then eventually a house in Fremont right around when I was born. They were one of many South Indians who moved to California in hopes of making a life for themselves in the land of opportunity, just like Nalini and Mohan did. But nowhere in Hollywood was their prevalent experience represented.
True Indian representation in mainstream Western media is unfortunately minimal. I’d never seen someone like me, let alone my parents, depicted on TV. While there are a few roles where Indian actors and actresses play heavily Westernized or Americanized characters, I was never able to see a proper representation of the culture I hold so dear to my heart.
It made me so incredibly happy to see Nalini and Mohan’s blossoming immigrant love in California. It’s refreshing to see something as pure as them, something I can’t recall ever seeing on screen before. I was able to connect them to the experiences of my parents and the tales my mom and dad would weave for me as a child when I’d eagerly ask about their experiences.
I remember feeling lethargic or nonchalant as a child about the lack of representation because I was so used to seeing characters that didn’t look like me, but somewhat acted like me. Watching shows like “Drake & Josh” and “Hannah Montana” brought me entertainment and some relatability as a young student, so I couldn’t be bothered with the fact that there weren’t actors of color that I could look up to. Only when I grew older did I realize the stark lack of South Asian characters on TV. Proper representation is something so many people struggle with, and something so many others take for granted.
When I see Mohan and Devi’s relationship, I see myself with my own father. And that is something I haven’t seen in the media from characters who look like me, hold the same familial values and celebrate the same culture.
I see Mohan’s face always plastered with a smile, a caring face on an Indian man. This image speaks miles to me. I’m used to seeing white fathers lovingly care for their white daughters on my screen. I usually wouldn’t shed a tear for them because I always felt some sort of detachment that kept me from fully embracing the tenderness of the moment. Where was the father that looked like mine? Where was the father who taught his child to respect her elders, told her stories about her cultural folklore and reassured her that despite her mother’s tough love, her mother still loved her deeply?
Most importantly, I see my own parents mirrored in Nalini and Mohan themselves — proudly Indian, asserting their places in a new country and ready to tackle the challenges that faced them while starting a family.
“Never Have I Ever” gives depth to Indians living in America. It loudly boasts the message that Indian Americans are not all that different, that we are capable of living Americanized lives while still upholding our culture. It’s a message that’s glossed over much too often. There’s no such thing as being “too brown” or “too white.”
Nalini and Mohan, even if they may be an idealized Hollywood version of my parents, capture the melded American and South Indian qualities of them so well. And after 19 years of staring at my TV, hoping to see a reflection of myself and my family, I’m finally able to see us in the mirror.