When Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s friend Shaharah Gaznabbi sent her a screenshot of Mindy Kaling’s tweet calling for South Asian girls to audition for a new Netflix show last year, she said yes. The honest reason, she said, was mostly that she wanted to hang out with her best friend, whom she hadn’t seen in a while.
It turned out that this spontaneous energy made her a good fit for the character, whose impulsiveness sometimes gets her into trouble. Luckily for Ramakrishnan, it helped her land her first acting job — the lead role in Kaling’s and Lang Fisher’s coming-of-age series “Never Have I Ever,” premiering Monday on Netflix.
The show, loosely based on Kaling’s childhood, centers on Devi Vishwakumar, an Indian American high school sophomore who is dealing with the grief of her father’s sudden death while navigating ordinary high school troubles: grades, fitting in and, most important, boys. The comedy is fresh and uniquely Gen Z, incorporating aspects of pop culture like the CW’s “Riverdale” and a knockoff version of TikTok in different scenes.
Reconciling trauma and everyday life is seen through the lens of an Indian American teenager, rebelling against her overprotective mother to go to parties and drink.
It’s one of the first times a South Asian girl’s story has been the center of a U.S. television show. Ramakrishnan, a Tamil Canadian from Mississauga, Ontario, said she’s excited to provide this representation.
“How has this not happened already?” she asked. “It’s not, you know, some small group of people. For me, being Tamil, we’re all over the world.”
She recalls how her spur-of-the-moment audition went down. Ramakrishnan and her friend went to their local library, figured out how to use her mom’s camera and sent in a video. A week later, she was asked to send in four more. Ramakrishnan, who was then 17, had acted in her high school’s theater productions, but she had never held any kind of job before.
“When they asked me to send in more, I honestly thought that they set the bar really low and they had low expectations, so I did not think much of it,” Ramakrishnan, who is now 18, told NBC Asian America. “But a week after that, after sending in four more videos, they asked me to come to L.A. for a screen test. And that’s when me and my best friend lost our minds.”
After auditioning in Los Angeles, Ramakrishnan found out that she had gotten the lead. Ramakrishnan said Kaling told her that her ability to bring herself to the character from the get-go was a major factor in her being chosen among 15,000 other applicants. She was able to give her input into what Devi said and how she reacted to keep the character realistic.
Devi is a bold, nerdy overachiever who desperately wants to shrug off the past year’s trauma and become cool and popular. She enlists her two best friends, Fabiola and Eleanor, in the ploy, picking boyfriends for them and trying to wangle invitations to parties. She tries to distract herself from her father’s recent death by pursuing an older, extremely sought-after boy at her high school.
While Devi’s Indian heritage isn’t necessarily the focus of the series, it’s certainly present in the first season. It can be seen in the Vishwakumar family’s nightly dinners, when they might eat dosa and sambar, and in Devi’s cousin Kamala’s fretting about her parents arranging her marriage.
It’s also apparent in more nuanced ways. Devi’s struggles with her own connection to Indian culture are evident when the family attends the annual Ganesh Puja, a Hindu festival celebrating the god Ganesha. She is visibly uncomfortable wearing a traditional sari, and when she runs into her friend Harish, who has returned from Stanford to attend the puja, she’s surprised to hear that he genuinely wanted to come to the “lame-fest.”
When Devi tells Harish that she can’t wait to move away to college, become an atheist and eat cheeseburgers with a white boyfriend, he says that he used to relate but that his Native American roommate’s connection to his own culture made him reassess. He tells her that even though he used to make fun of the puja every year, he doesn’t want to be an “insecure Indian guy who hates doing Indian things,” and Devi unconvincingly asserts that that’s not how she feels and quickly heads off.
Throughout the episode, Devi seems to feel out of place among the other Indian Americans. She makes fun of a group of girls around her age doing an Indian dance performance and gets scolded by a dancer’s sister. Later during the puja, she talks to a college counselor — the white husband of an auntie — who tells her that without her using her father’s death as a selling point, he doesn’t see how she’s different from other Indian teenagers applying to college.
“I’m not like any other Indian kid, and I’m not interesting just because my dad died,” she says.
Ramakrishnan said she was able to draw on her own experiences as a first-generation South Asian growing up in Canada.
“Like Devi, I had to figure out where I stood with my own culture, and that’s something she goes through in the series,” Ramakrishnan said. “Which is really interesting, because it hasn’t been talked about in film and Western film, being first generation. And now we’re bringing that to light and we’re having that conversation, which is important.”
Ramakrishnan also pulled from her own social circle while playing Devi. In the initial teaser trailer for “Never Have I Ever,” Devi is seen kneeling before several Hindu gods, saying, “What’s poppin’?” Ramakrishnan said the phrase made its way from her group of friends to the show.
“I used to always say that on set, and slowly but surely Mindy and Lang started putting that into the actual script,” Ramakrishnan said.
She was able to finish out high school as a normal student. She found out that she had landed the role in May, graduated in June and began filming in July. At Kaling’s request, she kept the secret for two months, telling only her best friend.
“I really got to live out my high school life normally, getting ready, you know, for prom and commencement, but then just knowing ‘OK , this is going to happen. Get ready,'” Ramakrishnan said.
Ramakrishnan wants to continue to pursue acting. While sheltering in place with her family in Mississauga, she’s reading scripts, looking for more projects to dive into and playing Animal Crossing with her brother and mom.
She said other South Asian girls who want to pursue careers that aren’t seen as traditional in their communities should go for it, because if they don’t, they’ll regret it.
“It’s never too late to pursue something, because no path is ever the right way,” Ramakrishnan said. “There’s no one conventional path to go about doing something.”