In Never Have I Ever, the primary love story might seem to be between Devi Vishwakumar and her crush, Paxton Hall-Yoshida. Or even between Devi and her academic nemesis, Ben Gross, a kid who starts to show his soft side. But the actual love story that anchors everything is between Devi and her mom, Nalini.
The Netflix series, which has drawn in pandemic-moored audiences since its debut in late April, begins with a tragedy: Devi’s father Mohan, played with theatrical cheeriness by Sendhil Ramamurthy, drops dead at an orchestra recital where Devi (the brash and likeable newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is playing the harp, an instrument first gifted to her by her doting father. This loss sets off the tension of the show: Nalini (the always-excellent Poorna Jagannathan) is left to raise her daughter alone in a country far from the one where she was born while Devi sets off on a plan to better fit into American popular culture, to get a boyfriend, to stop being so abjectly nerdy at school, to break free from certain home-set strictures. Her mom, meanwhile, hardens in the absence of her dad.
Neither Devi nor her mom are particularly literate in the handling of their own trauma. Both scoff at therapy as a practice, though they grudgingly benefit from it. They’re students of a textbook that might be familiar to fans of Mindy Kaling, who co-created the show. In Kaling’s case it was her mother who died, not her father, but her approach to grief, by some accounts, portends the one depicted in the show. “One gets the sense that Kaling hasn’t given herself a chance to grieve, nor does she really want the chance,” explained a profile of Kaling from 2012, in this publication. While Kaling’s obsession with romantic love has become something of a calling card in her work, in real life she seems more preoccupied with the love of her mother, to take a read of her interviews and books and the facts of her life. She’s called her mom her “best friend” and “soulmate”; theirs is “the single most profound relationship that I’ve ever had in my life.” Kaling also foretold the brusqueness of Devi, a character loosely based on her younger self. “I like to move forward,” she said then, about her reaction to her mom’s death. “I don’t know how much it would help for me to think about things too much. It just seems so fucking unfair. So I get on my elliptical machine and listen to some Rihanna and try to forget about this bullshit.”
Devi doesn’t ever get on the elliptical and blast music, but she captures the spirit of the act, to her mom Nalini’s dismay. She may be studious, but she’s a self-described hot-head as well (a quality that fits with the choice of voiceover narrator — John McEnroe, a personal hero of Devi’s departed dad, who schooled her in the McEnroe brand of “spirit”). Devi throws tantrums, breaks windows, screams into the air. She views the loss of her virginity as a challenge equally important as admission into an Ivy League school. Meanwhile, Nalini can seem to perfectly emblematize a certain breed of Indian immigrant woman (almost to a fault — the myopic scope of the show’s sense of identity has yielded some pushback in online chatter) — usually of a high caste and privileged educational background, a doctor with hardline aspirations reared to find the expressive rebellions of her dislocated daughter more calamitous than relatable. She’s steely and unforgiving. Toughness is how Nalini shows her love, a trope so attached to the immigrant narrative it may as well be tattooed onto every script to tackle the genre. But the worn idea that immigrant parents don’t say “I love you” also links to another notion: that a different kind of love runs below the surfaces in homes like this. It’s more affecting when it appears perhaps, because of how rarely it’s verbally expressed. Cultural mores might limit affection, and, counterintuitively, heighten it. In an immigrant household after all, it’s often the case that parents and children literally speak different (first) languages from each other. The work involved to understand each other demands perhaps the sort of rigor applied to marriage, to the great romances of a person’s life.
For my part, the first stirrings of jealousy I can remember were not directed at some girl a crush of mine liked, but about girls my parents seemed to approve of more than they did of me. In Never Have I Ever, as well, Devi seems less deeply bothered by the love interests of her crushes than she does by her mom’s evident affection for a visiting female cousin. Throughout the season, that enviable cousin, Kamala, played charmingly by Richa Moorjani, acts as a likable foil to Devi. Kamala is helpful, docile, sweetly pretty, and readily available for whatever Nalini Aunty asks — “the daughter you actually wanted,” as Devi puts it. At one point Nalini, readying the girls to meet an important guest, tells Devi to favor her left side; Kamala, on the other hand, has no bad sides.
Onscreen, daughters often fall short of mother’s expectations. The Disney movie Brave came to mind as I watched Never Have I Ever. The film heralded a new era for the animated genre — there is no love story at its center; the fraught love between a disapproving mother and a headstrong girl performs that role. A question that runs throughout concerns to what extent any mother knows what’s best for her daughter – in the case of Brave, the Queen wishes to properly marry her princess daughter off to a prince. Of course, the daughter is to some degree a copy of the mother’s younger self. A larger tension fuels these narratives, to do with feminine ideals, how the assertion of them by an older woman might necessitate a betrayal of her own instincts, a forced erasure of the thorniness in her daughter that once defined her.
In Never Have I Ever, a flashback in the penultimate episode gives an origin story for the troubles between Devi and Nalini. On the night of Mohan’s death, Devi misplaces her sheet music; the rage Nalini subsequently flies into bespeaks years of frustration. “Why don’t you raise her?” Nalini asks Mohan, in a private conversation Devi overhears. “Because I give up. I am done. She’s too headstrong and doesn’t listen. Whoever this child is, I am through with her. That’s your child. She’s no daughter of mine.” A few beats after we witness this flashback, Devi confronts her mom with an accusation that makes for the most intimate tussle between two characters in the series. “I just feel like I’m really struggling to raise you,” Nalini says. “I understand why you’re struggling to raise me,” Devi responds. “It’s because you don’t like me.” She unloads a confession: she heard her mom disavow her that terrible night. “What’s not fair is that I lost the only parent who cared about me,” she continues. Nalini’s face registers the reasonableness of Devi’s logic. After all, her veiled expressions of love read, throughout the series, as censure (a request for none of the “usual Devi nonsense” is one of her refrains). Yet their incompatibilities seem born out of how similar they actually are. (Watching Devi and her mom, I thought of when my own late Indian immigrant physician mom flew into a rage and dramatically “disowned” me. I ended up calling her bluff and moving into our family’s guest room — we were both too headstrong for each other.) Devi closes the episode with a haunting line: “I wish you were the one who died.” It rings instantly with the sound of regret — she’ll surely wish she hadn’t said it — and of truth.
By the finale, the tension breaks with a reconciliation so visually stunning and legitimately affecting there seems to be no question who the lovers of the series are. Devi begins the episode having run away from home to camp out at Ben’s house. By the end she has reunited with her mother. They stand on a beach — Mohan’s favorite place — there to memorialize him on his birthday by scattering his ashes and finally letting him be. The wind touches everything so visibly it’s as if it blows off the screen, the froth and sound all making real the famed drama of a Malibu inlet. The two women stand in a cove, John McEnroe, absurdly, perched on the cliffs above like some fairy godfather. They say sorry, and confess, finally, in words, that they do love each other. Still, Nalini’s love is tinged with a conditional pragmatism. “You’re my only family,” she says, as if her love requires explanation, a motivation driven by self-need rather than maternal instinct.
The French director François Truffaut praised his American peer Alfred Hitchcock for filming murders as if they were love scenes, for understanding, essentially, the fineness of distinctions between poles of intimacy. Never Have I Ever may promise a glossy, bubblegum YA experience, but underneath lies something stranger and realer than the surface attractions. The beach scene leads into a final one that features Devi’s two male love interests in the frame — one in the flesh, the other calling on a phone — but by now the nod to obvious romance feels dutiful. The scene that lingers in the mind took place on the beach, full of real heat, between a mother and daughter who love each other so much they can’t help but hate each other, too.
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