Mindy Kaling Puts a New, Comedic Spin on the Rom-Com Heroine

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever (Photo credit: Netflix)

Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever is a new spin on an old classic—a modern-day Wonder Years with Indian American teenager Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishan) at its center. The series opens with Devi, a trendy teen entering her sophomore year of high school, praying to a shrine of Hindu gods. In her prayer, Devi lays out her demands for a better year than the last: She hopes to be invited to a party with alcohol and hard drugs (not so she can partake, but just to have the opportunity to decline cocaine); she wishes for her thick arm hair (“it’s an Indian thing”) to thin out; and finally, she dreams of a boyfriend who plays team sports—not some nerd from her AP classes. “He can be dumb, I don’t care. As long as he’s a stone-cold hottie who can rock me all night long.”

This clip, featured in many of the show’s widely shared teasers and trailers, makes it clear that Devi is just a normal Indian American teenage girl. But about a minute later, it gets real: We’re hit with a white, male voiceover, whom we soon find out belongs to tennis player John McEnroe. His explosive temper and multiple championships gained him notoriety in the late ‘70s and ‘80s; McEnroe explains to the audience that Devi desperately needs a comeback.

Devi’s parents, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), moved to Southern California in September 2001, which as McEnroe explains, “was not a super chill time to be a brown person in America,” but Mohan’s soft and measured way of dealing with conflict continually soothed both Devi and Nalini’s high-strung constitutions. His sudden death by heart attack at Devi’s freshman-year spring orchestra concert brings her life to a grinding halt. In pursuit of a comeback, with two ride-or-dies by her side—robotics-nerd Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) and drama-queen Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young)—Devi sets out to seduce her crush, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). This is the ultimate mission in her quest for normalcy, all in an effort to avoid drowning in overwhelming grief.

Never Have I Ever is highly bingeable. It’s a joke-laden comedy of errors, riddled with sentimental montages of Devi’s father (the very charming Ramamurthy at his DILF-iest), Indian diasporic angst, and of course, teen drama. NHIE shares comedy DNA with Kaling’s other projects, from her widely celebrated work writing for The Office (2005-2013), to her more recent projects: Late Night (2019), a feature film where she stars alongside Emma Thompson as the only woman of color in a late night writers room; her serialized retelling of Four Weddings and a Funeral (2019); her short-lived NBC sitcom Champions (2018); and most obviously, her eponymous comedy The Mindy Project (2012-2017). Like Mindy, NHIE offers sex as a strong motivator for its vibrant, intelligent, and pop culture savvy Indian American protagonist who’s constantly, sometimes ham-fistedly, reaching for more.

What’s radical about these shows is exactly what makes them fodder for critics and haters: their hyper-intelligent yet deeply flawed, outspoken, and sometimes problematic Indian protagonists. Both Mindy Lahiri—Kaling’s character on The Mindy Project—and Devi challenge the “boy-crazy” trope. In addition to being motivated by the idea of getting a boyfriend, they’re impressive in their own right: Dr. Lahiri is an excellent gynecologist who starts her own in-vitro practice, while Devi is a Princeton-bound natural leader. As we’re so often either desexualized, hypersexualized, or exotified by American media, representation of desi women with bodily autonomy, pursuing their desires (with or without parental consent) is quietly revolutionary. We as an audience may not personally relate to everything Lahiri or Devi want—Lahiri’s longtime love affair with her curmudgeonly, semi-racist Italian coworker Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) was by no means the model of a healthy relationship; and Paxton, Devi’s crush from the swim team, has obvious flaws including being too cool for school—but whether we’re shocked or impressed, we cannot help but take note of their dogged pursuit, and open expression of their desires, and how much they’re willing to fuck up to get what they want.

As an Indian American woman, competing pressures of white American and Indian cultures, with their double standards and mixed messages about sex, serve(d) to police my desire, especially when I was a teen. These pressures exist in the NHIE universe: Devi’s mother doesn’t allow her to date, while her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), a comically beautiful PhD-student, prepares to meet the suitor her parents have arranged for her to marry, despite having a secret boyfriend. Even Nalini is boxed in by the need to keep up appearances—upholding the image of a well-kept home and mourning her husband in the auntie-approved way.

Another Kaling signature is dialogue that completely opposes the hyper-natural and mumblecore subgenre. Just as all of Aaron Sorkin’s characters speak in rapid, cascading, angry paragraphs, and all of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s characters speak in sing-songy, back-and-forth reference, Kaling’s characters tend to speak from Devi’s point of view. In a manner befitting her larger-than-life protagonists, Kaling’s unique, incisive comic voice trickles into every character, building a rich, colorful world that prioritizes their points-of-view. The cartoonish dialogue features characters saying exactly how they feel without anyone actually hearing them. “A husband from India. Someone I’ve never met before. Perfect stranger. How exciting,” is Kamala’s reaction to the news of meeting her suitor. Nalini blissfully responds, “I know! Finally, some good news for our family.” Nalini is blissfully unaware of Kamala’s reservations, though her language and implication could not be more clear.

Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project (Photo credit: Jordin Althaus)

Consistently, Kaling writes characters who are both self-aware and problematic, who should know better, but bad behavior is an easy coping mechanism for the harsh realities of grief and racism—and this is apparent in her character’s language. Most of the time, as the audience is meant to root for Devi, if not simply because almost all the dialogue reinforces her worldview—but in one particular instance, we really see Devi do a “Bad Thing.” After a conflict with Paxton that she’s too ashamed to tell her friends about, Devi is unable to answer a question about Nazis in her history class. When her classmate Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) berates her, she responds that she wishes the Nazis would kill him, a hurtful and problematic sentiment even if Ben wasn’t Jewish.

When asked what she has to say for herself, Devi responds in another explosion: “I’m sorry, I’m just messed up, I’m just a messed up person who ruins everything, who will never find happiness. And why should I? I don’t deserve love. I’m a rude teenager who disrespects her mother. I wish I was the dead body on the 101.” “Okay, that was dark,” her principal responds, and the matter is closed. While some viewers expressed shock and anger at the sight of an Indian American teenager saying something so obviously antisemitic, historically Kaling’s dialogue has not shied away from the uglier things humans are capable of saying to one another. In this case, the antisemitic comment served to show the audience, and a newly perceptive Ben, that Devi’s disproportionate response and heightened emotional state. On The Mindy Project, the casual racism its characters experience on a near-daily basis in New York is a source of much of the show’s comedy. Similarly, Lahiri’s boyfriend, Castellano, makes several flat-out racist assumptions about her family and culture throughout the show.

The important part though, is that he is called out almost every single time. Likewise, Ben calls Devi “David” just to mess with her. These quick, quippy microaggressions are characterizations rather than take-home messages for the viewer. Kaling also loves a good pop culture reference. When Kamala finds out about Riverdale, she marvels that the parents allow their children to shower together, and Devi quips that the actors playing teens on the show are “older than mom.” Sheltered Kamala is surprised and titillated by the possibility of freedom from parental control, and Devi is so clearly not the 30-year-old teenager we’d see on a Riverdale-type show (though Paxton definitely is). Kaling’s work is filled with overt references like these; Lahiri is rom-com-obsessed, and The Mindy Project could be viewed as a fart-joke-heavy masterclass in American romantic comedy, with its memorable homage to Norah Ephron joints You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle. Lahiri and Danny are reunited after he runs across town, and she climbs hundreds of stairs to the top of the Empire State Building; she passes out upon reaching the top, he finds her on the ground, and they fall in love all over again.

For some, Mindy Kaling’s characters represent the wish fulfillment of actually doing the wild thing your parents always warned against.

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In these shows, women are allowed to fall apart without being depicted as “crazy” or hysterical. When Devi throws a book out of a window after finding out her friends tried to protect her feelings by keeping a secret from her, McEnroe tells us that anger is a logical response to her spiraling assumptions. By framing Devi’s internal state as logical, the show helps to destigmatize and demystify mental illness. As we learn throughout Never Have I Ever, both Devi’s explosive reactions and her fixation with Paxton have everything to do with her grief. Finding a boyfriend is a way of receiving the approval and constancy she lost when her father died. Other characters use different coping mechanisms for their pain. In a particularly poignant scene, Nalini finds herself talking to Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) after Devi moves out. Though at first she dismisses therapy as something just “for white people,” Nalini reveals that her sudden desire to relocate to India with Devi stems from her own grief over the loss of her husband, and the fear of raising her daughter alone. Dr. Ryan kindly suggests that if Nalini allows herself to fall apart, it might actually bring her closer to Devi.

The final episode of NHIE pulls from the Mindy arsenal of rom-com references, when Devi, having suddenly realized she needs to be with her mother to spread her father’s ashes, relies on new-driver Ben to get her to Malibu, in a Ephron-esque, race-against-the-clock sequence. Devi is running for love, but this time the rekindled romance is with her mother and their shared memory of her father. As Devi races into her mother’s arms—right after she meets the real-life McEnroe—they share some of their most dark and vulnerable feelings, meeting each other with affirmations of how much they love and need each other. In the show’s most cinematic sequence, Nalini, Devi, and Kamala share in a Hindu ritual set to U2’s “Beautiful Day,” sending Mohan’s ashes in the waters of a beautiful Malibu Beach—the ritual is later interrupted by a booze cruise replete with topless women, which, Nalini jokes, Mohan would’ve also enjoyed.

As much as Devi and her mother pretend they have it together, while also inserting their true feelings between funny observations from time to time, their truths inevitably come bursting out. In the act of revealing their vulnerability, they are finally able to share their grief, and show up for one another. The absurdly high intellect of Kaling’s heroines, juxtaposed with their failure to avoid disastrous coping mechanisms, is relatable to members of the Indian diaspora who are pressured to “keep it together” or repress their feelings for the sake of appearances. For some, Kaling’s characters represent the wish fulfillment of actually doing the wild thing your parents always warned against. For Lahiri, it’s riding your bike out of your ex-boyfriend’s wedding reception after giving a sloppy fuck-you toast and then crashing into a pool. For Devi, it’s having a public fallout with your best friends, somehow also ending up in a pool, and then having the swim-team guy you’re pretend sleeping with drive you home in his car. What can I say? We love falling in pools to prove we’re one domino away from falling apart.

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by Aarushi Agni
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Aarushi Agni (@aarushifire, she/they) is a queer desi American writer, actor, comic, musician and educator splitting time between Madison, WI and Brooklyn, NY. Aarushi performs sketch comedy with Overstep Comedy, and does stand-up. She is a singer-songwriter; her band Tin Can Diamonds is streaming everywhere. She holds an MFA in Writing & Activism from Pratt Institute.