interview Entertainment

Mindy Kaling on 'Never Have I Ever', growing up Hindu, and showing relatable Indian women on screen

Mindy Kaling   | Photo Credit: Mindy Kaling/Instagram

“Oh, my resolution was to get more attention,” is one of the iconic lines by Kelly Kapoor, played by Mindy Kaling on The Office (US). The multi-hyphenate Mindy posted this video clip to her Instagram on January 2. She has, of course, lived up to this resolution (as if she has not always been on our radar), launching a new show on Netflix titled Never Have I Ever, starring newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.

Among her many projects, we have also seen Mindy in drama series The Morning Show, starring in and producing comedy-drama film Late Night and while also seeing her take charge of TV series Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Never Have I Ever, co-created by Lang Fisher and Mindy, follows the life of high school sophomore Devi Vishwakumar after the tragic passing of her father. As a result, she navigates grief, popularity, changed family dynamics and her personal relationships in unexpected ways. Mindy’s ‘brown girl magic’ fan base had long been waiting for such a project — but the show is sure to appeal to anyone who knows and respects Mindy’s work spanning acting, directing, writing, producing, and even singing when the occasion calls for it.

It is 6.30 am in Hyderabad, and despite a ten minute timer, Mindy from her home in Los Angeles gives a virtual nod to her team to go slightly over as the video chat continues to delve into the her latest, and definitely most personal, creation.

Excerpts:

Can you describe your writing relationship with Lang?

Co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher with tennis pro and series narrator John McEnroe on the set of ‘Never Have I Ever’

Co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher with tennis pro and series narrator John McEnroe on the set of ‘Never Have I Ever’   | Photo Credit: LARA SOLANKI/NETFLIX

I felt so lucky to partner with Lang on this because she was on The Mindy Project for years and years and worked on 30 Rock before that. We have this real love of comedy, obviously, but we both embarked on a teenage show kind of blind and it was scary to us because of how much research we were going to have to do, how little we knew about teenagers. Lang has a very high emotional IQ and she wanted to story that was more than just a teen sex story.

We talked about things we both had in common, one being that we both lost a parent unexpectedly. And we had never been able to write about that in our comedy shows. Even though grief and rage are not funny, we were able to make it funny in Never Have I Ever, while people who experienced the same thing would be able to say, while watching the show, that they acted out that way too.

How did the persona of Devi germinate in your mind? And how different is the final concept of Devi, from what you started out with ?

Mindy Kaling & Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on the set of ‘Never Have I Ever’

Mindy Kaling & Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on the set of ‘Never Have I Ever’   | Photo Credit: Mindy Kaling/Instagram

A lot of descriptions of the show have been that it’s based on my childhood or is autobiographical, but I think it’s definitely not based on my childhood but it is in the spirit of my childhood, because I grew up in the 80s and the 90s, and the show is based in 2019. But one of the things about me as a kid is that I was a shy nerd, but did not have the confidence Devi has; I think to be the star of the show and to hold down an entire production like this, the character has to have a lot of confidence. Even though she has all these problems with how she looks and her social life and everything, we wanted her to have an underlying cheerfulness and a resilience I don’t think I had as a kid.

The way Lang, my co-creator, and I talked about her having a temper, being funny — that pretty much stayed the same — that was one of the reasons why Maitreyi was such a perfect fit when she came in for auditions; it was like our dream realised when she said the words.

There’s still something of a taboo on south Asian women having a short fuse, a temper. How did you approach writing that into Devi’s inner landscape?

One of the most exciting things about making Never Have I Ever was that, Asian women are not expected to have tempers or be characters that get angry. I get angry. We are trained to want to see Asian women not get angry. I come from a family of women who have huge opinions and big tempers but it’s also coupled with the odds of the Indian idea of being a demure, perfect mother, wife and woman. We’re supposed to be quiet and feminine, but a lot of women I know have an underlying occasional rage — as most people do.

Mindy Kaling with actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on the set of ‘Never Have I Ever’

Mindy Kaling with actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on the set of ‘Never Have I Ever’   | Photo Credit: LARA SOLANKI/NETFLIX

So when we were creating [the Vishwakumar family], I really wanted to show three very different women who all lived under the same roof— who identify as Indian but have completely different journies. Even Kamala (Devi’s cousin), who you think is going to be this sweet goody-two-shoes, has her own rage as well. And that was the most enjoyable thing, to show this very unusual family with three women coping with loss and the cultural expectations of them.

A lot of the young Indian community around the world will understand the polarising relationship between Nalini and Devi; the nuances of pressure, love, restraint. How did you approach a balance of those different elements during writing?

There’s so much that’s funny about the way Indian mothers parent. There are many times, Nalini [Devi’s mother, played by Poorna Jagannathan] threatens her daughter with casual violence, like “I’m going to smack you!” There was a fine line there between having the mother say she was going to smack her in front of a white American guy, and have you still love her — because that’s really terrible, but also very funny and very true, at least in my experience growing up.

Mindy Kaling (background) watching a scene between actors Poorna Jagannathan, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Richa Moorjani on the set of ‘Never Have I Ever’

Mindy Kaling (background) watching a scene between actors Poorna Jagannathan, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Richa Moorjani on the set of ‘Never Have I Ever’   | Photo Credit: LARA SOLANKI/NETFLIX

We live in such a sensitive society and we don’t want children to ever feel endangered but I also didn’t want to lie about what a lot of Indian parents find acceptable, if there is a way to express love and frustration... and she says many times she’s going to murder her daughter. [laughs] It shows that Nalini’s going through so much as a single parent and sole provider and showing how much she loves her daughter; only she does not express it in the way you see in shows — like My So-Called Life — where the parents are young and cool and have these deep heart-to-hearts with their kids about their sex lives. And nope, that wasn’t my childhood! So I wanted to show all of that through an Indian mom’s eyes.

While watching the show, I couldn’t help but wonder where this kind of show was while I was growing up. Is that what motivated you to get ‘Never Have I Ever’ started?

Divya, absolutely. It’s a selfish act when you do something like this because I grew up Hindu, praying to gods, blessed having Hindu priests bless my car, my textbooks. When you do a show like this, you get to hire all these Indian writers who say they had these similar experiences and you don’t feel so strange anymore. So that was kind of selfish.

I loved the experience of creating this show and, if people watching it can say, “Oh my gosh, yes, I too, before my SATs have to pray in front of a bunch of gods only two of whom I know what their deal is,” that is a really rewarding feeling.

Can you talk about what Poorna, Richa Moorjani (Kamala) and Maitreyi showed you where the show could head?

Lee Rodriguez, Poorna Jagannathan, Jaren Lewison, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Mindy Kaling, Darren Barnet, Richa Moorjani and Lang Fisher

Lee Rodriguez, Poorna Jagannathan, Jaren Lewison, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Mindy Kaling, Darren Barnet, Richa Moorjani and Lang Fisher   | Photo Credit: Mindy Kaling/Instagram

Oh, so much. One of the things Lang and I ensured from the beginning is that, when you write a script like this, you have an idea of what the characters are going to be but when you hire actors, they become partners with you. It was really important for us to sit with them, have meals with them, and hear their stories — basically steal from them, as we wanted to be as close to their lives as can, so that the characters felt more comfortable to them and so that the show would be better.

Maitreyi, in particular, is so comfortable in her skin; she has this great raspy voice and uses all this lingo and slang that I’d never heard before. So hearing her talk and then Lang and I putting that into the script was for authenticity. All three of them gave us such great material for the show.

Bonus round: If Kelly Kapoor from ‘The Office’ (US) and Devi Vishwakumar from ‘Never Have I Ever To Meet’ were to meet, how would that interaction go?

[Laughs] I think that Devi would have no patience for Kelly! Devi is just so whip-smart and tough in a way that Kelly is not. Devi would also roll her eyes so hard at how frivolous and girly Kelly was, that she would just not be into her at all. And Kelly would just think Devi was such a brat!

‘Never Have I Ever’ streams April 27 on Netflix

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 2:27:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/mindy-kaling-on-never-have-i-ever-growing-up-hindu-and-showing-relatable-indian-women-on-screen/article31423515.ece

Next Story