Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” landed with a splash creating buzzworthy conversation among desi circles across the globe. The hit series, now on its third season, has landed in Netflix’s top 10 TV shows each consecutive season. NHIE is a coming-of-age comedy-drama produced by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher. Based in the United States, the series revolves around an Indian-American family and touches on issues that generations of desi women still struggle with.
Season two left viewers wondering about the state of the love triangle between Devi, the protagonist played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, her boyfriend Paxton, and her love interest, Ben. This season shifts to a love diamond with her first South Asian love interest, played by Anirudh Pisharody.
Although NHIE was intended for a teen audience, the experiences of the characters are relatable for all age groups. The nuances of three generations of desi women in their situations at home and work are at the forefront of the storylines. Richa Moorjani portrays Kamala Nandiwadal, a hard-working CalTech Ph.D. candidate and cousin to Devi. Poorna Jagannathan stars as the recently widowed Dr. Nalini Vishwakumar and mother to Devi. Brown Girl Mag contributors Ashley Ramcharan and Sneha Goud sat down with both Moorjani and Jagannathan to discuss their characters’ growth in season three and the paramountcy of representation.
The following answers have been condensed for concision and clarity.
Both your characters are actively breaking stereotypes. Richa, your character Kamala does not want to follow through with her arranged marriage. How does this build upon Kamala’s empowerment journey and what should the audience look forward to in season three?
RM: “Kamala is finding a sense of urgency, which she lacked her entire life. So many of us, especially brown girls are able to relate to that whether or not they had an arranged marriage or their parents putting pressure on them. There’s pressure to fulfill your family’s expectations and do what they want, whether that is marriage or school or a career. It’s been awesome to portray that.”
Poorna, your relationship with Dr. Jackson is unconventional, how does this reflect Nalini’s growth post-Mohan’s death?
“In season two, we found Nalini trying to army crawl through and move forward. But moving forward is not the same thing as moving on. The character realizes she’s not ready for a relationship. Devi’s not there either. She wants to be there for her daughter. In season three, we see Nalini form this beautiful sisterhood with the characters.
Nalini is also trying to find herself and find intimacy in relationships outside of the home. This idea is explored as she tries to shape up and shift how she parents Devi, otherwise she’s going to lose her. That’s one of the biggest realizations. If she doesn’t step in and fill that emotional hole Mohan left, she may run the risk of losing her daughter.
The relationship was two people talking at each other instead of to each other. You see Nalini step into that role of mother and friend. Nalini is very guarded and unable to express emotion but she has lovely scenes between Kamala where she takes Kamala’s advice and encourages Devi to spread her wings.”
How did you prepare for your portrayals of women of color in STEM, a traditionally male-dominated field?
RM: “There is a storyline in season two, where Kamala struggles with her misogynistic and possibly racist supervisor who mispronounces her name. We added a bit in where after he mispronounced ‘Kamala’ and after I corrected him, he mispronounced it in a different way. This is so realistic.
I am not smart enough to work in a field like science, technology, engineering and math, so sorry to my parents. I had to do a lot of research on what it is like to be a woman in this space. Despite it being a comedy, we are putting a spotlight on a real issue. Many women and especially women of color in STEM, are not given credit for their work or a voice. They’re invisible and excluded.
Studies during my research showed that lack of representation negatively impacts young girls from wanting to go into these fields. I think this storyline is brilliant because the writers could have solely focused on Kamala at home or her arranged marriage but they chose to show her pursuing a Ph.D. There are many others who come to the U.S. from India or all over the world, to be in these fields. Season three is not about that storyline but it feeds into season three where Kamala continues this journey of using her voice and standing up for herself.”
PJ: “There’s one pivotal flashback conversation between Nalini and Mohan. She discusses not wanting to live in America and going back to India because everyone makes fun of her accent, her name, where she comes from and the food she eats. While preparing for scenes, I recall Lang clarifying its context; it’s for the young South Asians or female writers in the room. These are the stories, including that of Mindy’s mom, that represent overqualified women who are discounted, invisible and undervalued. I believe this show is a love letter to young brown girls and our moms. We never truly appreciate or see their struggles in a visceral way.”
Devi frequently sees a therapist in the show. Mental health is a traditionally taboo topic in brown households. What are your thoughts on how mental health is treated on the show and in real life within the brown community?
RM: “I think it’s incredible how our show normalizes Devi going to therapy. In season one, Nalini says, ‘I think Devi should go to therapy,’ but Devi thinks therapy is for white people. She ends up going anyways which impacts Nalini’s arc in season one. Mental health is a topic Poorna and I think is very important. We talk about it a lot and I’m happy this show opened up that conversation to normalize it. I am a strong believer every person on this planet needs therapy.”
PJ: “This is especially impactful to normalize a young South Asian girl going to therapy.”
We know there is LGBTQ representation with Fabiola and Eve, but will we see any queer desi representation in season three?
RM: “Yes, you will, but you have to watch to see who.”
Poorna, what is the significance of playing a mother in a first-generation Indian American family?
“In real life, I’m a mother to a first generation South Asian boy who is exactly the same age as Devi. Their progress has been identical and it’s just infuriating too. I’m exhausted but it is eye opening. First of all, I learned so much from the show, I use ‘hilare’ (short for hilarious) all the time. Then my son gets annoyed.
“The writing in the show does the heavy lifting. I’m a very different person from Nalini, I parent differently but the writing contains humor and vulnerability. Nalini is very strict, but she’s also hilarious. In season three, you see her struggling and it’s not meant to be Westernized or because she’s committed to raising a traditional household and sticking to her values. It’s due to her trying to understand Devi better and you see her having the courage to parent differently.”
Poorna, we see different perspectives on dating before marriage from Devi and Kamala. We’ve seen Nalini’s attitude towards Devi and boys before but it seems like her boyfriend is going to play a significant role this season. How will Nalini deal with that?
“Nalini’s going to just lose her mind when the new Indian love interest enters the conversation. It’s a very interesting turn of events. I can’t wait for you guys to see it.”
Have you noticed a change in the film industry toward South Asian stories and actors since NHIE launched in 2020?
RM: “It has changed in so many ways, meeting other people in the industry such as writers, directors, storytellers and actors. They tell me that this show has given them the confidence, platform or even the resources to get their stories out there. However, our story is only one story. We are just at the tip of the iceberg. There are many talented voices out there that need to be heard. Being South Asian is not a monolith. There is no one experience that can represent every experience of what it means to be Indian or South Asian. It’s been incredible to feel empowered as an actress and to be on a collaborative set where I feel like my voice and input matters. We can work with every department across the board, hair and makeup, costumes, props, and even the writers, Mindy and Lang Fisher. To be able to feel like what we think and feel matters. I just really hope and pray that any project we’re ever on after this we feel that sense of power.”
PJ: “Same, just piggybacking on what Richa said, this project has become a real cornerstone for Netflix as well and for other streaming services and other networks. Whenever I read a new script and a new character is introduced, in my head I always think they’re going to be white, and when they come to set and they’re not white. It is such a diverse show and then you add more diversity to it with every episode and every season. That starts behind the camera. It has become a diamond and a stellar kind of a lighthouse on how things could possibly be done. It’s not paying lip service to diversity. What happens when you make it diverse and what is the reaction from viewers when you make it so diverse? I didn’t think in my lifetime I’d see myself reflected on TV. It’s a whole version of me, not a sliver of me and that’s mind-blowing.”
RM: “I also never imagined that I would be a part of a show like this, especially one that would be watched not just by South Asian people, but people all over the world. That is what has shown the top people in the industry, networks, studios and executives—that a show like this can work and it can make them money because they care about that at the end of the day.”
This show is more than a comedy, in Jagannathan’s words “It is a love letter to young brown girls.” Topics span mental health, racism, sexism, parenting, coming of age and many more. NHIE is being received by all audiences, not just South Asians. Its ratings are reflective of relatable stories within mainstream culture.
We’ve seen more brown faces on the big screen in recent years, including Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel. Diversity is more than a trend, it’s vital for underrepresented communities to be seen. While shows like Ms. Marvel paved the way for more South Asian voices to be heard, brown folks everywhere can now tune into Netflix and see women who look like us—women who represent generations of women we know from our mothers to our sisters. You can watch season 3 now streaming on Netflix.
“How could the British bring the Indians without the cows?”That’s one of the jokes you’re very likely to hear at comedian Priya Guyadeen’s show. In fact, the 53-year-old just wrapped up a set of shows with her troupe: Cougar Comedy Collective. The Guyanese-born comic spearheads the group of mostly women of “a certain age,” as she puts it.
She says the group was formed in 2021 but she started dishing out jokes back in 2020 during the pandemic, over Zoom. She was always labeled the “funny one” in her family and decided to take her jokes to a virtual open mic, hosted by her friend, where she says failure was less daunting.
Cut to 2023, and the comic was able to take her show on the road. Guyadeen and her fellow performers recently hit the East coast for a set of shows called “Cougars on the Loose!” The shows even featured two male comics.
Guyadeen’s comedy routines touch on her Indo Guyanese background, highlighting stereotypes and a clash of cultures. In one of her jokes, she tells her audience that her Guyanese mom is bad with names when she introduces her white boyfriend, Randy, and he gets called Ramesh.
Out in the Bay Area — where she spends her days now — she tries to connect the sparsely Caribbean population to her jokes.
That includes talking about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre which had ties to San Francisco and ended in Guyana. She uses this as a reference point — trying to connect her audience to her background with historical context. She says this does come with its challenges, though.
The single mom also practices clean jokes. Once she finishes up her daily routine with her eight-year-old son and day job as a project manager for a biotechnology company, she tries to find time to write her material.
It’s a balancing act. I’m like the day job-Priya for a few hours or for a chunk of time. And then I’ve got to put on my comedian hat and do that for a period of time because with comedy, I’m not just performing. I’m also producing, managing the shows, booking talent, seeking venues.
Though it’s not easy, she says she’s learning through it all — the business side of comedy and discipline.
Guyadeen, who’s lived in Brazil and Canada, says her young son really contributes to her comedy. A lot of her material focuses on jokes for parents, and single parents like herself, because she feels:
[We live] in a society that doesn’t really create a support system for single parents.
Her nonprofit, Cougar Comedy Collective, was born out of all the great reception she received. She noticed a “niche market” of women in their 50s who loved to get dressed up and come out to the shows to hear jokes that related to their own lives that aren’t typically touched on. These were jokes about menopause, aging and being an empty nester. Guyadeen says her nonprofit,
…bring[s] talent together in our age group to celebrate this time of life; celebrate this particular juncture in a person’s life.
As Guyadeen continues her comedic journey, she says she hopes she’ll be a role model for other Caribbean women to follow their dreams despite their age. She also hopes to see more Caribbean people carving out their space in the entertainment industry.
Featured Image of Priya Guyadeen taken by Elisa Cicinelli Photography
March 20, 2023March 29, 2023 3min readBy Rasha Goel
Award-winning commercial real estate and land consultant in Arizona, Anita Verma-Lallian, is venturing into the world of entertainment with her newfound production house, Camelback Productions, making her the first South Asian female in the state to do so. Verma-Lallian is a woman used to paving her own way, and now she’s committed to doing it for future generations.
Through her production company, she aims to contribute towards greater South Asian representation in mainstream media with a focus on storytelling that’s relevant to the community. In a conversation with Brown Girl Magazine, the real estate maven spoke about what inspired her to shift from investing in land to investing in creative dreams.
Tell us more about Camelback Productions and what your hopes are for the company?
The intention is to help communities that are not being represented in the media. As you know, there are a lot more streamers looking for content so that presents an interesting opportunity for people to tell stories that are otherwise not being told.
For us it’s important to tell these stories that aren’t being told, and tell them in the way that we want them to be told. With South Asians, for instance, the roles typically given are stereotypical. There are only four or five roles we are playing repeatedly. I want to show the South Asian community and culture in a different way.
You come from a business and investor background. I am curious to know what catapulted your interest towards establishing a production company?
Good question. There were a few things that inspired my interest. I was looking to diversify the different opportunities we offered our investors. We’ve done a lot of real estate, so we were overall looking for different investment opportunities. And then, at the time when I started exploring this, the real estate market was in this wait-and-see for many people.
Everyone was sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens next. There was a slowdown at the end of 2022 which is when I started looking into this more. Film seemed like it was kind of recession-proof and not really tied to what’s happening in the economy, which I thought was refreshing and exciting.
Also, overall, I observed what was happening in the industry with there being a push to see more South Asians in the media. The timing felt right, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.
Good stories and good quality scripts. We are looking at all types of content — movies, docu-series, comedy shows, and reality shows. We’re open to anything that has a good message.
On a personal level, what hits home for you with this production company?
Growing up I always loved film and TV. We watched a lot of Bollywood movies because that’s what we related to and I always loved that. But I did feel there wasn’t a lot of representation of people that looked like me. Being able to change that — especially after having kids, and a daughter who wants to go into film — is important for. It’s a contribution for future generations. It’s important to me that as they grow up, they see people that look just like them.
Is there a significance to the name Camelback?
Yes! Camelback Mountain is a very iconic mountain in Phoenix.It’s one of the most famous hikes we have here and a relatively challenging one.
The significance is being able to overcome challenges and barriers. I have a nice view of Camelback Mountain and it’s something I look at every day, when I’m stressed and overwhelmed. It has a very calming and grounding presence.
To me the mountains signify being grounded and not being able to be moved by external factors. That’s what I want this production company to be!
What would you advise people interested in entering the entertainment industry?
The best advice I would give someone is to align yourself with people that you know are experts in the industry; that have a good track record. Learn from as many people as you can.I learn as much as I can, talk to as many people as I can, and I study different things to understand what was and wasn’t successful.
“Naatu Naatu” is one of the most memorable sequences from S.S. Rajamouli’s epic action-drama “RRR,” and has assisted the Telugu-language blockbuster in becoming one of the highest-grossing films at the worldwide box office. With music by M.M. Keeravani and lyrics by Chandrabose, “Naatu Naatu” is a celebration of regional music, dance, national identity, and male friendship.
But long before the song began collecting its accolades, its infectious tune and fast-step dance, performed vigorously by N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan, became a viral sensation outside of the film. It’s now the first song in a movie from India to be nominated for an Oscar and also to have won a Golden Globe.
When asked about the song’s ripple effect across the world, Keervani remarked,
For us — the musicians and artists — social media is very powerful, because of the internet and reachability. Nowadays, globally, anything that is different by nature, anything that is innovative, a little innovative, will catch instant attention.
It all started with a TikTok dance challenge where thousands of fans mimicked the dizzying hook step, choreographed by Prem Rakshith, garnering hundreds of millions of views, and making the song a bonafide global phenomenon. Today, the official YouTube video has well over 123 million views.
While the science behind why certain songs have a higher virality is widely debated, Keeravani attributes a large part to the song’s instant connection with the masses to its unusual 6/8 time signature, taken from carnatic music — which he believes is “inherently encoded in the human body.”
For non musicians, he vocally percusses the rhythm, “thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha.”
[This beat] will give you instant energy. Like suppose, you’re going low on sugar. So there are things like instant energy boosters; like you consume some aerated drink or a cup of coffee with sugar. And instantly your energy is boosted. So six, eight will give you an instant feeling to get up, create some steps and dance. There is a swing in the beat. So you will react to that beat — involuntarily you will react.
Before Keeravani wrote the music for “Naatu Naatu,” Chandrabose was given the challenging task to pen the lyrics to this rhythm. Continuing a long-standing collaboration that began 29 years ago, Chandrabose has co-written over 400 songs with Keeravani, including this iconic title track — his only co-write on “RRR.”
Regionality played a significant role in the composition.
Ram comes from Andhra and Bheem comes from Telangana. Both dialects are different; the slang is different. So, there is a challenge to write both slangs in one song. Everybody should understand those words. That is the challenge.
Chandrabose explained how he needed to appropriately incorporate the various dialects from the regions the primary characters were from, and reflect colloquialisms from 100 years ago, when the film’s story takes place, that is also recognizable to present-day listeners.
In [the lyric] ‘Yerrajonna rottelona mirapathokku kalipinattu’ (which translates roughly to “like eating a jowar roti with a chili” in English), ‘thokku’ means pickly, like mango pickle. In Andhra, it is known as ‘pachadi’ and in Telangana, it is known as ‘thokku.’ So, everyone can relate and connect [to] that word. And since ‘thokku’ belongs to Telangana, that line is sung by Bheem.
The original Telugu version of “Naatu Naatu” was also dubbed and released across a variety regional Indian languages, including, “Naacho Naacho” in Hindi, “Naattu Koothu” in Tamil, “Halli Naatu” in Kannada, and “Karinthol” in Malayalam, and has collectively been streamed over 92 million times on Spotify.
Chandrabose remarks that he envisioned the lyrics to 90 percent of the song in half a day, but it took about 19 more months to finalize the song in its entirety. This was in great part due to the time spent on researching the dialects and finalizing each word to the overall ethos of the song. Rajamouli had given strict direction that the song should authentically be about one’s nature, their culture and countryside, and be universally respectful.
When asked about how they scaled this process across the other five language releases, Keeravani recalled that they had to prioritize lip sync.
Since it’s a dance number, there is a combination of close shots and long shots. So the long shots are spared, but in the close shots, they need to be as close to the Telugu lyric, I mean, lip wise.
He added that the writing team had to make some concessions,
There will be a certain amount of compromise in the meaning of the lyric. But that is inevitable. As long as the song is conveying its main essence, it has no problem.
Culturally, India has a rich history of celebrating songwriters, composers, and music directors in cinema. However, this recognition does not always translate to credit and compensation. For example, “Naatu Naatu” was extraordinarily successful on TikTok, but TikTok isn’t available in India, creating complex monetization adversities. It’s especially important to understand that India’s non-bollywood and independent music market has a nascent publishing infrastructure and is traditionally known to have a work-for-hire payment model where song contributors are not offered royalties.
Speaking optimistically to changing times, Chandrabose shared,
I’m getting royalty from past 12 years (from performing rights societies IPRS in India and PRS in the U.K.).
He explained that, especially with viral songs, some songwriters and composers have only limited careers in the “limelight,” but “after 10 to 15 years, they cannot get more work and they cannot get money.” He speaks to songwriting royalties as a key to retirement for the next generation of song makers.
So, at that time they will receive these IPRS royalties as their pension to meet their needs. They will get these amounts in their old age that will help them a lot.
Upon concluding our chat with Chandrabose and Keeravani, we marveled at the amount of progress that has happened for independent and non-hindi language music communities around the world. The virality of “Naatu Naatu” is a testament to the musical prowess out of South Asia, but also challenges the Western notion that Indian music is narrowly defined by belonging in the catchall ‘world music’ category, or the sounds of the sitar and tabla, or a lightbulb-twisting Bhangra club-hit wonder, or, if nothing else, then Bollywood — all in large part exclusively North Indian. Unfortunately, this distinctly important nuance still plagues Western media and major music institutions.
Recently during a Songwriters Hall of Fame conversation with Oscar-nominated songwriters, Paul Williams incorrectly introduced “Naatu Naatu,” as “the first Hindi-language song ever nominated for an Oscar,” which is spliced with not one, but two errors — not only misidentifying the language but ignoring A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho!,” a Hindi song which was nominated and won in 2009 for the same category. As South Asian artists around the world begin to traverse into global markets, we hope to see more Western entities taking the time to research, hire South Asian contributors, and execute due diligence to minimize inaccuracies and cultural erasure.
“RRR” is streaming on Netflix and Zee5. On March 3 it will be re-released in over 200 US theaters as part of ‘The RRR Fan CelebRRRation’. Check your local cinema guides for one-off theatrical screenings.