Mindy Kaling felt like the perfect person to make a show about a teenage Indian nerd growing up in America because, well, she can relate.
Speaking at a Netflix TV brunch discussion of young adult programming, Kaling discussed her upcoming series “Never Have I Ever” and specifically the need to show that nerds are not just “stuttering kids on the spectrum.”
“Nerds are not only the wallflowers and the quiet ones,” Kaling said. “We’re ambitious, we have obnoxious personalities sometimes, we want to have sex and dreams like all the other kids.”
Her new series centers on Devi, an overachieving high school sophomore who has a short fuse that gets her into difficult situations, following her life as a modern-day first generation Indian American teenage girl. Kaling addressed the importance of casting Canadian newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in the lead role (she was selected from 15,000 applicants who replied to the open casting call that Kaling posted online) in relation to colorism issues with Indians on screen, as well as noting the role that Netflix vice president of local language originals Bela Bajaria played in getting the series made.
“We see a certain kind of Indian actor all the time in auditions… Our show is about a Tamil Indian girl, and typically they’re South Indians and they’re dark-skinned,” Kaling said. “I felt lucky to be able to do a show about an Indian nerd who’s also badly behaved, to show that because I’m deeply familiar with it. Bela was also interested in seeing Indian characters who are not all like Princess Jasmine.”
Bajaria featured on the brunch panel alongside Brian Wright, the streamer’s vice president of YA/family original series. The two discussed how Netflix’s YA strategy has evolved over the last few years, with Bajaria pointing to several shows in the international space, like Spain’s “Elite,” as being indicative of how things have changed.
“There’s been these amazing YA shows from around the world that have the same universal themes of relationships, coming of age, right of passage,” she said. “To see yourself in your own language, in your own country, with the nuances and specificities of that country, has been a really powerful next step in YA for us.”
Concurrent with the brunch, Netflix released the results of a survey which pointed to improvements in the way that young adults have been portrayed on screen over the last few years.
Per the survey, 63% of respondents said they feel TV series and movies are more accurately reflecting daily life now, and that they see portrayals of diverse characters being on the rise. The poll also found that young adult respondents in the United States weren’t all that concerned about whether or not the characters they were watching were from their own country, as 56% said they didn’t think it was important.
“More people deserve to see their lives represented on screen, including young people,” said Wright. “Coming of age happens to all of us no matter who you are or what your background is, and we’ve tried to reflect that in our series for young audiences.”
Bajaria said she sees the future of YA on content Netflix as “doing more shows in different countries” and “getting deeper into cultural nuances and sensitivities,” as well as discussing some of the issues that “matter most to teens,” such as the environment.
The panel also features several other creators and actors working in the YA space at Netflix, including “Atypical” creator Robia Rashid, “On My Block” star Jessica Marie Garcia and “I Am Not Okay With This” creator Jonathan Entwistle.