This article contains spoilers for the ninth episode of Season 3 of “Never Have I Ever.”
Among the many joys of watching “Never Have I Ever” is the breadth and depth of its characters, including its multiple generations of South Asian women. The show is primarily a coming-of-age comedy about high schooler Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) dealing with the death of her father, the social pressures of adolescence, and the excitement (and humiliation) of teenage crushes. At the same time, many of the show’s supporting characters get wonderfully rich arcs of their own, such as Devi’s mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan).
On a lesser show, Nalini easily could have been a stereotype: a one-dimensional stern, domineering immigrant mother — the kind we’ve seen a lot on screen. But in the hands of Jagannathan and “Never Have I Ever” co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, she’s so much more than that. Over the course of the show, Nalini has gone on her own journey of growth alongside Devi, juggling her job as a dermatologist with being a single parent to a hormonal teenager, and learning to become a more affectionate and patient presence in Devi’s life.
During the show’s third season, which premiered Friday on Netflix, Nalini gets both a friend and a foil in Rhyah (Sarayu Blue), the mother of Devi’s new love interest, Des. It’s rare to see two very different South Asian mothers on the same show. Rarer is seeing both characters handled with complexity and nuance.
“For so long, we’ve seen a very specific version of the South Asian mom,” Blue said in an interview. “What Mindy and Lang have created is a world where everyone is so believable. It just makes it so much more rich and fun to watch.”
The two actors have been friends for a while, as part of a tight-knit and supportive community of South Asian actors in Hollywood, according to Jagannathan. Each said they were thrilled to finally get the chance to work together.
“We’re so used to, like, if there’s one Indian in a series, there’s just no room for another one. That’s the world that we come from,” Jagannathan said. “And suddenly, there’s a show with so many South Asians, so many people of color, so much diversity. And then suddenly, there’s two South Asian women, not only together, but in the dynamic of a friendship.”
From the day they met, Jagannathan said the two have dreamed about projects they could do together as leads. However, “the lack of seeing two South Asian female characters” as a duo onscreen made it “so hard to imagine what we would do.”
“When you think of, like, two white protagonists, like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Thelma and Louise — like, we have just decades of that trope,” she said. “But two brown women? It was really something to be in that space with her.”
As Blue pointed out, a character like Rhyah — a nutritionist with a chill, “California hippie-dippie” vibe — “would historically be represented by a white woman, which does make sense in a lot of ways, if you see her qualities,” she said. “It was fun to play this brown woman who had this sort of sensibility. It’s such an interesting version of a brown woman that you just don’t see very often.”
Like a simpler version of Nalini, Rhyah could have been a flat and reductive character on paper. In fact, it’s easy to imagine a version of her introduced purely as Nalini’s rival or a cartoon villain. (She does become kind of a villain, but we’ll get to that later.) But as Jagannathan noted, “the whole show is an exercise in nuance. It uses the old comedy device of opposites, and then fills that device in with so much color,” she said.
By introducing Rhyah as a contrast to Nalini, “it could have just leaned into a simpler trope. It’s a setup,” she continued. “But this show, and especially Mindy and Lang, they’re so committed to not only comedy, but they’re so committed to the world of nuance that they gave us these richly textured characters that actually aren’t opposites, but find so much in common, and want to find so much in common. They both long for this friendship in some way, and that’s what feels new and novel.”
The idea behind the two women’s friendship was inspired by Kaling’s own mother. “When my parents immigrated here, my mom didn’t have female friends. This idea that Nalini is a lonely woman who is an immigrant whose husband died and her having a female Indian friend was really fun to write and important to see,” Kaling told The Hollywood Reporter last week. “I’d never seen that on TV, and I wanted to see that.”
What begins as a friendship, including the pair commiserating over parenting teenagers and giving each other health recommendations, eventually comes with a twist. In the season’s penultimate episode, when Devi has a panic attack over her late father, Rhyah comforts her. But in the very next scene, she tells her son that Devi is “hysterical” and “has a lot of problems,” breaking up their short-lived romance. Through the writing and Blue’s performance, the show manages to make the moment both predictable and shocking when it lands.
Blue said when she initially got the role, she didn’t know that Rhyah’s arc would end in such spectacular fashion. As the season progressed, she delighted in getting to plant the seeds for the big reveal.
“I got a glimmer of it just in that first moment, when she’s like, ‘I prefer to exist in the wellness space.’ And it’s one of those things where I really wanted to make sure it was like a slow burn, because otherwise it doesn’t have the same effect, I don’t think. I feel like what they did so brilliantly is they wrote it in a nuanced enough way that by the time it happened, we were like, ‘Oh, now I get it,’” she said. “The payoff is so good, you know, and it’s just it makes it really fun to get to play something like that, because that’s not something that I would normally get a chance to do.”
There’s another layer of nuance to the two women’s relationship. As Jagannathan described, their storyline unravels “the ‘bad immigrant’/’good immigrant’ trope”: How people within the same immigrant communities sometimes perceive each other as rivals in their need to assimilate.
“‘You need to keep a distance, and you can’t really associate with them, and this is not a good person or good family to date within’ — you know, it’s a very, very true phenomenon,” she said. “It’s complicated. I am acutely aware of the dynamic. Obviously, Des and Devi, they get along and are wonderful, but [Rhyah] has this need to protect her son from Devi’s influence, like: ‘We don’t want to get mixed up with that family.’”
In a huge moment of growth for Nalini, she unconditionally defends Devi in a confrontation with Rhyah, part of Nalini’s arc throughout the show of “trying to let go of her armor and step into kind of a fluffier coat for her daughter and just be there emotionally for her.”
“In this season, you do see Nalini grow in her relationship with Devi and her ability to step into the kind of emotional hole that the more present or the more loving parent left,” Jagannathan said, referring to Nalini’s late husband Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy). “So there’s a lot of growth, and the moment with Rhyah where she stands up to Devi just serves as an example.”
According to Jagannathan, Nalini’s arc of emotional growth will culminate in the show’s fourth and final season, which they recently shot, and will premiere next year. Based on how the third season ends, we can expect to see Nalini preparing to become an empty-nester — an experience with which Jagannathan is intimately familiar.
“I’m a parent of a 16-year-old: He leaves in two years. And I keep reminding myself that my job is to deliver him to adulthood. Physically, but also emotionally, that is so challenging as a mom, I can’t even begin to tell you,” she said. “I think Nalini delivers Devi into adulthood as a more complete person, and in doing so, has to fill in the hole herself.”
As Jagannathan starts to reflect on the four seasons of the show, she says she feels “like a more complete artist after this journey,” describing “a sense of home and belonging and empowerment and voice” that the show has given her.
“I’ve always felt like a guest on every other set, including sets where I was a series regular. I always felt like it wasn’t my place and wasn’t my set, and for me to be on a set that feels absolutely 1,000% like home is a huge lesson for me,” she said. “I just have a sense of self and a sense of voice, of belonging, that I hope I will carry throughout my career.”
“Never Have I Ever” has also allowed her to imagine a future with more shows like it and more opportunities to share the screen with other South Asian women — including working with Blue again.
“Back in the day when Sarayu and I started, I didn’t have the imagination to dare to think like that,” Jagannathan said. “Suddenly, there are all these tracks being put slowly on the ground. We’re rolling into a future that is very unknown, but at least we can think about it, and we can maybe imagine it.”
Blue has some ideas of what they could do together. “She has proven to be somebody who has my back, and certainly, I’m somebody who has hers. We really are incredibly loyal friends. She’s got a lot of integrity about her, and I think they’re qualities I love so much about her. It makes acting with her very easy because you can trust her,” she said of Jagannathan.
“We keep talking about trying to find a project for the two of us because of that. I think we have a lot of fun together,” she continued. “Somebody had mentioned something about us doing like a ‘Thelma and Louise’-type, and I thought, ’God, that is so what we need to do!’”