If there is one fact you know about Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, premiering Monday, April 27, it’s that the series is “loosely based” on the life of co-creator Mindy Kaling (Mindy Project writer Lang Fisher is also a co-creator). Some version of that phrase — “loosely based” — is peppered within most articles written about the series and the words ‘From Mindy Kaling” are supersized and given a lengthy amount of screen time in the teen comedy’s official trailer. Never Have I Ever comes from the mind of Mindy Kaling, and Netflix won’t rest until you’re aware.
But, when you actually watch the series — starring Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as grief stricken, unapologetically horny high school sophomore Devi — you’ll probably wonder where fictional character Devi begins and Kaling’s real life ends. Luckily, the writer/producer has already answered that question: Never Have I Ever isn’t autobiographical, but it is Kaling’s chance to put someone like her teen self on a global TV stage.
“Nerds are not always the wallflowers, the quiet ones — we’re ambitious with obnoxious personalities and want to have sex and dreams like all the other kids,” Kaling told reporters during a February Netflix event celebrating the streamer’s young adult content. “I think the evolution of the nerd [has happened] — Judd [Apatow] did such a great job with Superbad and then Booksmart — [but] we haven’t seen an ‘ethnic’ nerd.”
Devi is Kaling’s chance to create on such nerd who is just as three-dimensional as Superbad’s sex-desperate Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) or Booksmart’s unblinkingly intense Molly (Beanie Feldstein). Never follows Devi’s elaborate plan to seduce her high school’s heartthrob, swimmer hottie Paxton (Darren Barnet), and have sex for the first time. “I just felt I was really lucky to do a show about an Indian nerd who’s also badly behaved and horny, ” Kaling — a lifetime self-described “nerd” — continued. “Because I am deeply familiar with that.”
Kaling is also “deeply familiar” with many of Devi’s biographical details. Like Kaling, Devi is the first-generation American daughter of Indian immigrants. Devi’s parents are Indian Tamil and Kalin is half-Tamil (Devi’s portrayer Ramakrishnan is Tamil-Canadian). Devi’s mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) is a dermatologist, while Kaling’s mother, Swati Roysircar, was an OBG-YN. Tragically, Roysircar died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, when her daughter was in her 30s. Devi’s dad Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) dies abruptly of a medical emergency during one of Devi’s freshman year school events. The horror of that moment colours every second of Devi’s life throughout Never Have I Ever — including her many emotional blowups over the course of season 1.
“[Never Have I Ever] is similar to my other work because [Devi] is a big comedy character with an unusual personality … But [it] also deals with the emotional fallout of death and trauma,” Kaling told Decider in September 2019, previewing the series. “Lang and I have both dealt with that personally and wondered why we hadn’t seen that in shows before.”
Yet, Devi’s life isn’t a carbon copy of Kaling’s history. Kaling famously grew up in the suburbs of Boston during the '90s, while Never Have I Ever takes place in the modern day Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks. With its Tik Tok dances and Kardashian jokes, Never is extremely 2020. While Kaling has often mentioned her obsession with comedy from a young age, Devi doesn't seem to have found her passion yet, save for her fixation on academic excellence and crushing her enemy/obvious love interest Ben (Jaren Lewison). Devi also actually makes it to a rowdy high school party or two by Never finale “... Said I’m Sorry,” while Kaling has been vocal about skipping such events during her own adolescence.
That’s why it’s no wonder Ramakrishnan was encouraged to make Devi her own, rather than simply do an impression of Mindy Kaling. “She told me to bring myself to the character and figure out those honest, genuine moments,” 18-year-old Ramakrishnan — who was cast in the role of Devi at just 17 — told Refinery29 while describing working with Kaling. “I was in a sweet spot where I could look back a couple of years to relate to Devi’s struggles, but not too far off that I couldn’t relate because I couldn’t remember. I’m just far enough to know.”