Spoilers ahead. To be fair, the relationship between Never Have I Ever heroine Devi Vishwakumar and new boyfriend Nirdesh (or Des, to his friends) was doomed from the start. Or at least, it didn’t get off to the greatest start. Early into the Netflix series’ third season, Devi, who shows up at a high school party to make her now ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend jealous, is preparing herself to meet and then ditch her mum’s friend’s son. She isn’t optimistic about their encounter. Telling her friends to keep their eyes peeled for an “Indian nerd,” Devi is pleasantly surprised when a Hrithik Roshan-esque, hunky teen walks through the door instead.
For his part, Des (Anirudh Pisharody), who by this point has her foot firmly in her mouth, immediately calls Devi out on her BS. “You’re one of those Indian girls who only likes white guys and thinks all Indian dudes are just computer geeks.” They may have gotten off to a rocky start rife with stereotypes and, as Des puts it, some “mild racism,” but by introducing another love interest into the mix, Never Have I Ever offers viewers — and Devi — an exploration into the complexities and nuances that can come with dating within your own culture.
For star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the introduction of a South Asian love interest was exciting. “I was absolutely jazzed,” she tells Refinery29 over Zoom. Not only does turning a love triangle into a love square adds a new element to the show’s comedic side — “stable relationships in comedy are very boring,” Ramakrishnan says — but it also brings some much-needed South Asian male representation to Hollywood in a role that isn't a nerd or a punchline, but rather a desirable love interest. “We need to see some brown guys as well, they deserve good representation of a character that looks like them,” Ramakrishnan says.
And even though Devi starts assessing her dating options on the merit of their smokin’ bods, Des offers something Paxton and Ben have been unable to up until this point: a cultural relatability. Whether it’s understanding her mom’s reservations (and straight-up refusal) to let Devi date, or being able to have his curry without Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) pouring milk into it (we're looking at you Ben), Des and Devi are able to relate to each other through their South Asian heritages.
For many people, cultural relatability is a big factor in deciding whether or not to get serious with a partner. Despite how globalised and diverse our world and, by extension, our relationships have become, there can be a comfort in having your romantic partner be someone who just inherently gets where you’re coming from and, in many cases, what a lot of your personality and personal history may be informed by, especially when you’re a part of a community that’s often been marginalissed. As someone who has had partners from various cultures and backgrounds, I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t thought about how, and if, each one of them would fit into or understand very specific and unique aspects of my family and West Indian culture. Yes, partners from different backgrounds can definitely embrace and celebrate aspects of their partner’s background, but there’s a comfort and familiarity that comes from being with someone who you don’t have to explain certain things to — they just completely understand it.
And the emphasis or desire for this can change as you get older. While Ramakrishnan can’t relate to this experience per se, growing up in a diverse neighbourhood in Mississauga, Ontario and having relationships with predominantly men of colour, she understands where Devi’s coming from when she initially meets Des. “She’s coming from a lot of unconscious bias. We can call that out for what it is,” Ramakrishnan says. And this internalised bias and stigma that Devi so blatantly exhibits can be a reality for a lot of people too.
Growing up in a predominantly white suburb in Canada, I would adamantly tell my friends that I’d never date a South Asian guy, mostly because it’s what my predominantly white classmates would expect. And there was nothing I wanted less than to be one of the two brown kids thrown together among a sea of non-brown people. Which is why the actress is happy Des’ initial — and refreshing — reaction is to call Devi out. “She needs to hear it," Ramakrishnan says. "She’s made all these assumptions about Des before she's even met him or really properly spoken to him. ... [From there], the two of them get to just be kids, which I think is pretty refreshing.”
While cultural relatability might not be at the forefront of Devi’s mind with Des (and again, his hot bod), explicit questions — and concerns — around the nuances of dating within your culture are at the forefront of one character’s mind this season. Devi's older cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) has struggled with this very subject since season one, when she was set up in a match while having a secret non-Indian boyfriend. (Devi was thrilled when she found out; Devi’s mum… not so much.) Kamala ultimately decided to move forward with dating someone within her own culture, but in the third season, she sees that making the decision to find a partner who’s South Asian doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy sailing. Devi also realises the same when Des unceremoniously ghosts her, and she learns a tough lesson: Getting each other as incredibly smart, Indian nerds won’t necessarily save you from being dumped.
When Manish (Utkarsh Ambudkar), Kamala’s current boyfriend and a sneaker-wearing English teacher with no ties to his Indian heritage comes to the family’s Navaratri celebration, the differences between him and Kamala — and their relationship to their culture — is glaring. When he accidentally ruins Pati’s Golu (he uses her symbol of the American Dream, a brown paper Bloomingdale’s bag, to throw away cocktail napkins), Kamala’s grandma exclaims: “All [this] did was prove that this man has no respect for how things are done.” The pair offers a more grown-up and complicated exploration of this dating dynamic, something Ramakrishnan appreciates. “I love that yet again we're showing that the brown experience isn't monolithic,” she says. ‘These are two very different brown men, though both very charming and attractive, but what I love about [Kamala and Manish’s] relationship is that it has a little bit of a journey that it has to go through to prove itself.” The audience gets to watch as Kamala must grapple with the reality of choosing between appeasing the ideals of her grandmother, making a romantic decision for herself, and balancing her own ideals and needs as a young, immigrant woman.
At the end of season three, the relationship — and Manish himself — does prove itself — on his terms. “What I love about him is that he's very different to Kamala, he’s very Western, but he wants to learn [about her culture]," Ramakrishnan says. "He is not hating on it, he's just like, ‘Oh, this is just how I was raised. But I'm happy to learn. I'm happy to learn new things.’ And I think that's pretty awesome.”
Despite the rise in shows like Indian Matchmaker that highlight dating within your culture, having relationships like Devi and Des, and Kamala and Manish, are still important, because they continue to still be so rare to see on screen. “Take the romance out of it for a second and recognise that in so many shows we often hear, ‘Oh, there can't be two brown people in the friend group because that would be confusing. There can't be two East Asians in the friend group because that would be confusing.’ And it's like, what? When have we ever said that about white people?” Ramakrishnan says. “So if even just getting two brown friends, a platonic relationship is tough, it’s hella hard to get the romantic relationship."
“Hopefully one day we'll get to a point where we're not too shocked by a brown couple," she adds. "And it isn't that experience like how you felt that people would say, ‘Oh, of course the two brown people would get together.’ It would be ‘yeah, those two people who happen to be brown got together.' I want that one day.”