Was this a difficult watch? You bet your masala dosa it was! Even though each of the episodes was 20-30 minutes long, it felt like an eternity.
I must admit that I was curious. A show called Never Have I Ever with a Teenager of Indian Origin on Netflix? Created by a successful Person of Indian Origin who made us laugh? But you know what they say about curiosity, right?
Steamy teen romance? Should I be even watching this? But I thoroughly loved both seasons of Sex Education on Netflix, so perhaps, this will be just as good, eh?
I’ll try not to compare, but then Sex Education has Gillian Anderson as mom, and in this show we have an Indian mom (played by the perpetually harried Poorna Jagannathan) who is neither fully the self-sacrificing, tears inducing, emotional blackmail expert like all Indian TV mothers are nor is she the all-American Mother. Didn’t see her insist Devi carry lunch to school even once! I sorely missed,’I’ve been up since five, making food for you before I go to the clinic! You are so ungrateful!’
Once you get over the fact that an Indian doctor actually sends her daughter to a public school (and does not once say that education in India is much better!), you won’t wonder why the mother does not know Devi’s school timetable by heart or have a copy stuck on the fridge.
Despite the reference to ‘I am going to put some coconut oil on Kamala’s hair so she can smell like his mother, both Devi and her mother look like they’re having a bad hair day. No! They look like they’re having an entire season of bad hair. With no comb in sight! And yes, no respite from cliches!
Was this a difficult watch? You bet your masala dosa it was! And who eats masala dosa for dinner? They do apparently… Because it’s the easiest cliched ‘Indian food’ and pardon me if I sound mean, that’s what Mindy Kaling made for former presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris visiting her home. I gagged at the cliche of the poor Jewish kid she invites to dinner who finds the potato bhaji in a dosa spicy. I mean how pathetic is that? So even though each of the episodes was 20-30 minutes long, it felt like an eternity.
Perhaps I am not the young adult target audience, but even then, apart from the fact that an Indian teen is the protagonist, why does everything in the show such a cliche? Devi starts her plans to have a better year by talking to a lad who turns out to be gay (Alicia Silverstone’s Cher dating the gorgeous lad Christian who is gay was so much cooler!). Even the movie DUFF - which in teenspeak means ‘Designated Ugly Fat Friend’ - had more layered references than this hastily sketched one-line pitch to Netflix. In DUFF, the heroine helps her childhood friend now school jock do better at Science if he helped her do better socially. The DUFF is available on Amazon Prime.
If The DUFF gave us dating strategies then Clueless (written and directed by Amy Heckerling) gave us a whole new dictionary! Starting with ‘She’s a full-on Monet’ (she looks pretty only from afar, when you get close, it’s all a big mess!), ‘I’m Audi’ (for when they want to leave), ‘He’s kind of Baldwin’ and so many more. Never Have I Ever does not even begin to try to engage us with smart writing. The coolest line of dialog in the entire show is when Fabiola tells Eleanor - who’s staring at nothing, digesting the news that her mother is in town - ‘Hey Eleanor! You’re buffering!’
My attention wandered when Devi talked to her shrink. Seriously?! Which Indian parent would even admit that their child has mental health issues and send them to a shrink? Nalini does meet the doc and mentions that she doesn’t believe in shrinks, but it doesn’t sound convincing. The shrink just seems like a convenient exposition device to tell us that Devi has buried her grief. Most Indian mothers (since we’re talking cliches) would fix issues by ‘one tight slap’ or ‘come help me in the kitchen’... Plus, there’s that cliched ‘What would the auntyjis say if they got to know?’ (Swoon on the fainting couch!)
Speaking of auntyjis, the worst episode is the one where they show a community Ganesh puja being held in the high school. The mother suddenly seems to be wary of the auntyjis in the community and says that they should quickly pray and leave, but then tells Kamala to not sit at the table with the woman who married a Muslim man against her parents’ wishes and then got divorced. That makes me dislike Devi’s mother so much! Not only is she hypocritical, but Islamophobic as well? That’s just not cricket!
Of course Kamala (the cousin who is studying at Cal-Tech) talks to the woman who tells her to never go against her parents’ wishes. And I’m like erm...She knows the community does not like her, but how did she know what Kamala was told? And why is she at the Ganesh puja if ostracised by the Indians? Does. Not. Compute.
Speaking of Kamala, I wish she did not pull so many faces when she spoke. If you closed your eyes, you’d think it was a female version of Apu from The Simpsons! I was only grateful that Kamala - who is supposed to be fresh off the boat - did not shake her head and complete the cliche. Alas the Periappa (father’s older brother) is like every other interfering uncle, Eleanor’s mother is the motormouth, Fabiola’s hesitance to acknowledge that she’s gay, kids getting drunk at the school MUN outing, are cliches piled upon cliches that make you wince.
The worst part is, you can see these coming from a mile. Devi falling into the pool, Paxton helping her with his gym clothes, Devi’s mother misunderstanding is all a gigantic layer cake of cliches. And it’s not funny at all. And I tried hard to like Devi and her family. Even the dead dad did not compute.
I am happy to have watched The Perks Of Being A Wallflower and Ladybird (they are all on Netflix). Even the very lame Namastey London had really funny moments and it’s from 2007 (You can watch it on Amazon Prime). And before that, shows like Kumars at No.42 (on YouTube), Citizen Khan (Amazon Prime) manage to show how much fun being a desi abroad can be. The Namesake (book as well as the film), Bend It Like Beckham are fabulous, and for argument’s sake, even Balle Balle Amritsar To LA manages to bring a smile on your face. And yes, they have cliches too. But they don’t get tedious to watch. And just when I hoped there would be a better season two of Never Have I Ever (surely you know that OTT platforms will always work with known names again and again!), a small, indie film popped up on my watchlist. It has teen Indian protagonists, and I felt like a machochist clicking on the ‘play’ icon. I was rather surprised by the content even though the execution leaves much to be desired. The film is called: What Are The Odds, and has a similar weird girl, school jock ('Head Boy' in this case) trope, but thankfully it’s a small film saved by a fish called Bunty. If you must watch a teen story for comparison, or to get over the horrendous cliche riddled Never Have I Ever, watch the movie which made ‘As if!’ an answer to most questions...
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.