Warning: This article contains minor spoilers.
In season three of Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” which drops Friday, Devi Vishwakumar has hit her stride in school, but one problem threatens to blow it all: her sense of self-worth.
The South Asian American who is a 11th grader in Sherman Oaks, California, grapples with new romantic relationships, balancing cultural expectations and the opinions of her peers while continuing to grieve the loss of her father.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, 20, who plays Devi, told NBC Asian America that the biggest takeaway of season three is that “she’s learning how to be a better person to herself and that includes tackling the grief of her father. She’s actually going through a journey of grief and is evolving, which is really nice to see.”
Being the “it girl” who dates the most desirable guy in school is usually just a dream for most teenagers at the fictional Sherman Oaks High School. For Devi, that dream is a reality this season as she struts the halls, arms linked with the school’s heartthrob, Paxton Hall-Yoshida.
Ramakrishnan says seeing this nuanced level of representation would have been personally meaningful to her growing up.
"The biggest reason is because I would have killed to see the handsome boys all fight over and try to get the brown girl. That would have made a world of a difference to me,” she said. “Yeah, I could make a general statement right now like, ‘It would just be awesome to see a girl that looked like me in the main character position because I would feel like my story is worthy of being told.’ No, no! I’m a 'simp,' OK? And I want to feel that people can 'simp' over me," she joked, referring to the idea of being fawned over.
"We show a brown girl just in her skin not changing who she is — body hair and all — smart, not trying to dumb herself down, and these guys want to be with her.”
Season three begins with Devi publicly dating Paxton, but she can’t understand why he would choose to date her since she believes he’s out of her league, which creates a major set of problems.
“Most of us get into relationships when we really shouldn’t be because we don’t even like ourselves. We expect other people to like us and expect our relationship to be great,” Ramakrishnan said.
Devi feels pressured to have sex with Paxton after the popular girls at school question the validity of their relationship, and she fears he might break up with her if she doesn’t. The idea, however, makes Devi spiral and imagine her mother, Nalini, and grandmother looking down on her with shame after having sex in a hypothetical scenario.
Ramakrishnan says it’s not uncommon for teenagers and young adults of South Asian descent to feel a similar shame.
“It definitely reflects the fact that in most South Asian households, they don’t talk about sex,” she said. “The shaming doesn’t need to happen because it’s a lot for a kid — to feel that pressure and anxiety, like ‘Oh, no, I’m going to disappoint people.’”
Devi continues to heal from the loss of her father and deal with the everyday pressures of teenage life, including meeting Des (Anirudh Pisharody), a dreamy Indian guy and the son of Nalini’s new friend, played by Sarayu Rao.
Devi, who has never been interested in Indian guys before, is forced to recognize her own bias toward Des after assuming he would be nerdy and weird.
Ramakrishnan said she is lucky to have grown up in an area where she was surrounded by a lot of other South Asian people but recognizes that is not Devi’s experience.
“She realizes she’s got a lot of subconscious bias and she unpacks that. We address it, like, ‘Wow, Devi, you really had your assumptions about this guy before you even met him, or actually really spoke to him.’ And now you’re trying to backpedal real quick,’” she said.
Season one depicted Devi’s eager attempt to lose her virginity to the hottest guy in school in hopes of inevitably skyrocketing in popularity. Through season two, she connected with her cultural identity and learned to be a better person to others. This season, viewers see Devi learn the importance of self-love in a very public way.
Season three also focuses on the shift of cultural expectations where dating a smart Indian boy is an exception to Nalini’s “no dating” rules for Devi, the double standards of dating for South Asian girls versus guys and the cultural stigma of mental health.
Ramakrishnan said she’s excited about Devi’s evolution this season and showing a story where the brown girl doesn’t conform to Eurocentric expectations, but has a thriving love life that Ramakrishnan wanted when she was younger.