The Vishwakumar Women on Saying Goodbye

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The Vishwakumar Women on Saying Goodbye

For the women who portray the Vishwakumar family, Never Have I Ever has always felt like a family affair. While focused on the coming-of-age story of Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an Indian-American teen growing up in the San Fernando Valley and grieving the sudden death of her beloved father, Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s hit dramedy series has brought unexpected depth to the women who have raised her: Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), Devi’s strict but always well-intentioned single mother; Kamala (Richa Moorjani), her beautiful cousin attempting to balance a career in academia with her familial obligations; and Nirmala (Ranjita Chakravarty), her doting, scene-stealing grandmother.

On the eve of the release of the final season, which is now streaming on Netflix, the four women gathered via Zoom with Bazaar.com to reflect on their depiction of a matriarchal Indian-American family, the importance of cultural specificity, and how Never Have I Ever has changed the game for South Asian representation in Hollywood.


During this season, Devi and Kamala are trying to watch out for Nalini and Nirmala. Devi is trying to set Nalini up with her classmate’s dad because she thinks her mom will be lonely as an empty-nester, and Kamala tries to prove Nirmala is being scammed by her soon-to-be husband—though she’s really just worried about moving away from family. How have the family dynamics evolved for this final season?

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: You have Kamala and Devi, for once, on the same side. That already is very different to where we started the show, right? They’re kind of scheming together as sisters. I love that, as someone who is very close to my cousins. Devi is actually okay with the fact that her mom might be into someone, and she says earlier in the episode, “I want to do the opposite of sabotage.” I think that’s adorably dorky of her, but it shows her real growth.

Poorna Jagannathan: It’s such a beautiful scene because this is a multigenerational household, but it’s a very typical immigrant household. And in immigrant households, the women are always leaning on each other, learning from each other, are foils to each other. After we shot that scene, we were gonna go read the last script, so it really sunk in that the show was coming to an end.

Richa Moorjani: Part of the reason that it felt that way is because they’re basically discussing how change is coming and how it’s scary. That’s how it felt for all of us in real life too, because we were all, as actors, graduating from this show.

PJ: Richa had booked Fargo by then. The show is very resonant for all of us. All of us onscreen have a very intense personal connection, and I often say, sometimes, when the truth is spoken, it comes up at a different frequency than the script, and it felt like we were speaking [about] what is going on now for each of us.

Ranjita Chakravarty: What I loved about our role reversal—because in prior seasons, I was the one giving Kamala advice, like, “Oh, [Utkarsh Ambudkar’s character] Manish is too much of a dreamer”—is that in season four, Kamala becomes like my protector, which I thought was so cute. I don’t have a daughter-in-law or a granddaughter yet, but the connection was very, very strong.

RM: It speaks to the bonds that really do exist in real life within Indian families. I’m always the protector of everyone in the family.

Just the fact that Pati is getting married and Nalini is finding love again is something that is so taboo in Indian culture. Widows are expected to [not remarry] after the passing of the spouse, but I’m so happy that our show has normalized finding love again later in life for these Indian women.

PJ: And it’s not like they did it because they thought it’d be provocative.

RM: I don’t even think they did it consciously, to be honest.

PJ: No, it’s because Mindy [Kaling]’s father died when he was in his 60s or early 70s. My own mother became a widow when she was 60, and she remarried at 64. It is so uncommon, but I often say that for people of color like us, it’s an extraordinary feeling when you see a mirror image of yourself. TV can reflect where you are, but also can create a path forward; it can have conversations which you are unable to [have] in your own life. The images shown of finding love and starting fresh at any age, having conversations that lead to more intimacy, letting go of grief and trauma—all these conversations give us a new way of being in the real world.

Poorna Jagannathan

NOLWEN CIFUENTES/NETFLIX

Poorna, you’ve said in past interviews that the Indian sense of humor seems to be inherited, which becomes especially clear in group scenes with the four of you. The Vishwakumar women are composites of different women in your own lives.

PJ: Absolutely. And I actually think that the women on the show are also a composite of one woman in different stages of her life, in different circumstances.

MR: They definitely realize that they have much more in common than they think.

RM: That’s so true. Poorna has talked about this—how Nalini used to be Kamala.

PJ: Nalini was probably Kamala’s age when she came to the States. Nirmala also lost her husband when she was really young and had to raise two sons on her own. So that’s why there’s so much learning, because each of us has walked or is learning to walk in each other’s footsteps.

RC: And part of the humor comes naturally, because we’re saying everyday things and people can laugh not at us, but with us. I’m not even thinking the way I’m saying things is funny.

MR: I don’t think that’s just exclusive to South Asian families, but you walk into many South Asian families and the conversation tends to be very quick and witty. You gotta keep up, and we can’t slow down. So I think in that way, it definitely helps out with the comedy in such a natural way.

RC: [Nirmala has] evolved from this tentative, doting grandmother into a sassy [grandma] who’s now doing cultural references and getting mad at Kamala for not selecting the boy that she’s picked, but then also accepting it. Young people have told me that they relate to my character! I would think that they would all go for Devi, [Jaren Lewison’s character] Ben, [or Darren Barnet’s character] Paxton, but the young people say, “Oh, I have a grandmother just like you.” It’s like the politically incorrect grandmother.

RM: We all have a politically incorrect grandmother!

PJ: And it also directly traces where Devi gets her horniness from, right? [Laughs.] From the grandma!

RM: You really get to see in season four, and it all makes sense why these characters are the way they are.

netflix's "never have i ever" season 4 premiere screening event arrivals

Ranjita Chakravarty

Steve Granitz//Getty Images

The series finale finds the Vishwakumars—and Devi’s high-school friends—attending Nirmala’s wedding before going their separate ways. For Devi, that means finally graduating from high school and going to Princeton. What do you remember about shooting those final scenes, which feel as much like a goodbye as a celebration?

RM: Yeah, it was so exciting to end the show the way we did, with the dance scene. Seeing Kamala and Devi dancing together shows their evolution because, in season one, Devi would’ve rather moved to another country than dance with Kamala to an Indian Bollywood song. [Laughs.] I couldn’t personally have asked for a better ending for my character.

PJ: We’d always heard of a season four wedding, but we totally all assumed it was Kamala getting married. But that scene just shows the core, the heart and the power of Never Have I Ever, which is [that] it turns tropes on its head. Especially for Indian characters on TV, and I would say even in life, [your story] is written after a couple of life stages, right? But suddenly, Mindy and Lang, for all of our characters, insisted on writing chapters and giving all the characters a chance at love and a new beginning.

MR: In the last episode, the song that Richa and I danced to is in the Tamil language. For Richa, I know it was super important to her that the song had a female singer. And for me, it was just very important that the language was in Tamil. Sure, we can use a Hindi song—and that’s great, there’s no shame in that—but we can take it a step further and be specific to who these characters are in this family. The Tamil language is very important to me.

Right before the dance, Devi says, “This is for Pati, who thinks I’m a coconut.” I bring this up because for East Asians like myself who grew up in the West, we sometimes call ourselves “bananas.”

MR: Funnily enough, the original line was something like, “This one’s for Pati, who thinks I’m an ABCD.” I didn’t know what that meant, so I had to ask Lang, “Hey, what does this mean?” And then I learned it’s “American-born confused desi.” I asked, “Hey, can we say coconut instead?” I feel like a lot of people are able to relate to that. You understood it when I said coconut, because of the banana reference, and I feel like internationally, my cousins in England are gonna know exactly what coconut means.

What are some other specific nuances about Indian-American culture that you fought to include in this show and that have resonated with you personally?

RM: The most basic thing was how, in the Vishwakumar house, our characters will not wear shoes in the house and we will eat with our hands. It’s little things like that that may not even be noticed, but that’s what adds authenticity.

MR: In season one, just the fact that Devi is wearing a half sari as opposed to a full sari. Saris are very specific to South Indians, Tamils, Sri Lankans, but it’s for a certain time in a young woman’s life. As someone who wasn’t allowed to wear a full sari until she was 19, I thought that specificity was cool, and I know some fans picked up on that and really appreciated it.

PJ: In the scene where we meet Pati, when we’re leaving for America, we do what is known as a namaskar, which is a kind of prostrating at the feet. That’s something Sendhil [Ramamurthy, who plays Devi’s father, Mohan] and I automatically do when we leave our grandparents.

The writers write a beautiful script, and they allow space for us to bring our own personal experience. Even in my real life, I wear my South Indian wedding ring, so I got all the jewelry from India before we started the show and just came in with it. The sari that Pati wears a lot is from my [own] mom. All the clothes on set are the brands that I personally love and that I have introduced to the costume designer and now to all of America.

RC: Every person has different customs, but when I was growing up in New Delhi, I had never seen Golu. I came and saw Golu only in America, and people were very happy that we showed Golu, which is a very specific South Indian festival.

RM: We could have just been a general Indian family and celebrated Diwali and Holi like everybody, but only very specific groups within South India celebrate that.

RC: And putting the coconut oil in Nalini’s hair and the massage I gave [in season two]. Coconut-oil massage is a very specific mother-daughter [custom].

PJ: My eyes closed just thinking about it. [Laughs.] As I’m moving away and looking at the show in retrospect, I used to think I was nothing like Nalini. But as it’s finishing, I’m just so struck in such deep, profound, almost scary ways where there are parallels. When we started the show, my son was 13, and now he’s ready to graduate.

RC: I’m going to share something very personal: I lost my husband when I was 39 years old, and my kids were 10 and 4. I had one boy and one girl. So I was a single mom; I was basically going through what Nalini went through. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a grandmother to bring over. But some of the scenes were just like [my real life], like the scene where Nalini shows Devi the video [of Mohan]. My kids have said: “We’ve forgotten what Dad’s voice sounds like.” Some of [the scenes], I was like, “Oh my God, this is too close. It’s almost eerie and coincidental.”

never have i ever richa moorjani in never have i ever cr yasara gunawardenanetflix © 2021

Never Have I Ever has been both lauded and criticized for its portrayal of Indian-Americans. What do you think is the next step in the continued evolution of South Asian representation, and what do you think is still getting lost in this larger conversation about diversity and inclusion?

PJ: I think we’ve literally just scratched the surface. This story is very specific. We got a lot of people saying they don’t see themselves in the show and that they don’t see themselves reflected. That is actually such a compliment, because there’s such a need from the viewer to feel seen, and they will go on to create shows where they see themselves even more fully.

You have so many white shows that are so specific—a serial killer, a really rich family, a really poor family—and there’s so many different types of people, but that luxury of such tiny nuances is not afforded to our race. Richa is playing a [different kind of] South Asian character in Fargo, and I’m going on to my [next] project, Deli Boys, where I play like a Mafia boss who’s dealing drugs all day long.

RM: That’s the next step right there.

Being allowed to play all kinds of roles, running the gamut from hero/antihero to villain.

RC: And you don’t necessarily have to put on an Indian accent. I think that’s the best part for you guys—that you can act as everyday Americans, but you just happen to be South Asian.

RM: Yeah, and Poorna and I were discussing how important it is to never get complacent. Because as much progress as there is, there still is a huge racism problem in Hollywood, and there still is a huge gap in opportunities for us. So, as wonderful as it is to see these things happening, we still have to keep fighting to make ourselves seen. Hollywood likes to have trends, and we don’t want to be a trend.

PJ: Yeah, this show, with all us actors in front, has resonance behind the camera. It is empowering creators of color, because the truth is, only female creators of color are creating content for female actors of color. No one else is stepping up.

never have i ever

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan

NOLWEN CIFUENTES/NETFLIX

Maitreyi, you recently tweeted that you’ve been waiting to finally say if you’re Team Ben or Team Paxton. We know Devi ends up with Ben, but what are your thoughts on the resolution of the love triangle?

MR: I’m, first and foremost, always Team Devi, because to me, it’s her story about who she is as a person, not as an attachment or endgame with somebody else. After that last altar scene where she’s praying and just talking about how grateful she is for all the blessings in her life—that, to me, is the end. She could have ended up with either of them, and I would’ve been fine. It’s just that she came to a whole different mindset, and she grew, and that’s the ending that I’m asking for.

I will say that I’ve been lying to pretty much every post-launch person, switching my answer between Ben and Paxton, because I truly am neither. I don’t think people believe me. I think people think, like, I genuinely am on a team, but I think Devi is just Devi. I don’t think either of them are good enough for her, but I do think it’s not bad that she’s dating Ben. I think it’s a part of her life, as she goes off to college and makes more friends and relationships and gets her heart broken and falls in love all over again.

John McEnroe, as the narrator, says the final line of the show: “This is John McEnroe, live from Princeton, New Jersey, signing off … for now.” Have you talked to Mindy and Lang about revisiting these characters in the future?

MR: I think it’s definitely a tease for something that could happen one day. It’s definitely not in my control; I don’t have that much power or anything. It’s definitely a “for now” situation in the sense that it is done for now. But in terms of the characters, this is Devi’s life for now. And I think that’s what Never Have I Ever is all about. It’s chaotic, it’s messy, you don’t know which way it’s gonna go—but this is what it is for now. And unless they go off to character heaven with all the other shows, they live happily ever after.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Max Gao is a freelance entertainment and sports journalist based in Toronto. He has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Beast, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Men’s Health, Teen Vogue and W Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @MaxJGao.



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