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How Mindy Kaling's new Netflix series offers 'a sense of community'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: People across the world have been turning to screening services during the quarantine period in record numbers.

Last month, Netflix says that it doubled its number of new subscribers. One of the new binge-worthy watches is Netflix is "Never Have I Ever" from actor and producer Mindy Kaling.

Amna Nawaz has this look at a new story being told by new voices, as part of our Race Matters series. Her report is also part of our ongoing look at arts and culture, Canvas.

Amna Nawaz: The coming-of-age series tracks the trials and tribulations of 15-year-old Devi.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: I'm so sorry. That was such a weird thing to say.

Actor: All right. You're weird girl.

Amna Nawaz: Whose parents emigrated from India to Los Angeles in 2001.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: Do you mind going to the store and buying me a thong?

Actress: What?

Amna Nawaz: After a horrible freshman year, Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, wants to change her social status, but her friends, family and feelings don't make it easy for her.

When Devi's father passes away, she also has to deal with grief.

One of the stars of the show, Poorna Jagannathan, known for roles in acclaimed dramas like "The Night Of"...

Actor: Sorry to disturb.

Poorna Jagannathan: I want to go back to yesterday.

Amna Nawaz: ... and "Big Little Lies" joins this cast as Nalini, Devi's mother.

Poorna Jagannathan: The humor is built on top of an iceberg of grief.

Amna Nawaz: Jagannathan said watching the final episode in lockdown, even for her, was an intense experience.

Poorna Jagannathan: I had obviously shot the show. I have read the script. I have done everything. But it was a very emotional experience for me. And when I was trying to unpack why, I think the series lets you grieve, lets you grieve, of course, for the people you may have lost.

But I think it also is an opportunity to grieve our time, grieve for a way of life, grief for the vast unknown in front of us. And I think that's why it may have resonated.

Amna Nawaz: But there's also humor, which often comes from the unexpected narration of tennis legend John McEnroe.

John McEnroe: Drunk and rude, Devi was indulging in what I would call self-destructive behavior.

Amna Nawaz: Who, according to Devi, held a special place in her late father's heart.

Sendhil Ramamurthy: He doesn't let anyone push him around. Look at him giving it back to that umpire. He's a firecracker.

Amna Nawaz: Tell me what drew you to want to be a part of this project in the first place?

Poorna Jagannathan: What drew me to it, of course, initially was being part of the Mindy Kaling brand of comedy.

Mindy Kaling's sense of humor is very aligned with my sense of humor.

Actor: Did you get a bone?

Mindy Kaling: This is disgusting.

Actor: OK.

Poorna Jagannathan: And as I got deeper into the process, just the opportunity to play an immigrant mom. I'm an immigrant mom. I'm raising a child, a teenager in Los Angeles.

The parallels were really something I'm drawn to.

Amna Nawaz: Your family's originally from India. Mindy Kaling's family is also originally from India.

How did all of that lived experience inform how these stories were told and which stories were told in each episode?

Poorna Jagannathan: From day one, we entered a set, and there was a sense of belonging that was immediate. And what that means is, every single aspect is something that you can have input on, which I have never experienced that. There were a lot of Indian writers on staff and a lot of writers with immigrant parents on staff.

And that really, really showed up in the writing. And so everything feels very true, feels very lived-in.

There's a TikTok video made, and the mother pulls her in with a T-shirt and the dress. It's an experience that one of the writers had, and that will find its way in.

Amna Nawaz: There's another constant thread throughout all of the narrative, this whole balancing of cultures that we have seen in other shows before, even in other comedies before, right?

Actress: I would shrink my shoulders.

Amna Nawaz: I'm thinking of Eddie Huang's "Fresh Off the Boat."

Actor: The immigrant shrivel.

Amna Nawaz: Or Margaret Cho's series "All-American Girl" back in the '90s.

Margaret Cho: Our society considers John Tesh a Renaissance man.

Amna Nawaz: There are scenes in the episodes, like a Hindu ceremony, where Devi is kind of trying to figure out where she fits in and how to balance those things.

Actress: Pray you get into Princeton. Don't waste your prayers on stupid things like world peace.

Amna Nawaz: That's something that a lot of first-generation and second-generation Americans can relate to.

Is that the intended audience for these kinds of stories?

Poorna Jagannathan: For the South Asian audience, it feels amazing that this show is out there, because they feel seen and they feel like their experiences are reflected.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: Is everyone having fun at my slumber party?

Poorna Jagannathan: So, yes, it is amazing to see ourselves represented.

I don't think the show would have done as well as it has if it's only appealing to a South Asian audience, though. There's something about the show, something about its themes around belonging and not belonging.

This show, I think, has very universal themes around which it's built.

Amna Nawaz: Some of those topics are very tough things to talk about.

Immigration is incredibly divisive right now in America. Grief is something all Americans can relate to. Are there lessons to be learned from the ways those kinds of difficult things are handled in this series?

Poorna Jagannathan: First-generation kids have the agency to write stories, right?

And a lot of times, they're writing about their own experiences, and their parents are often the foils. They're often the obstacles to getting what they want.

This project is not yet done? Have you partnered with stupid people?

And, particularly, I can speak to the character of the South Asian mother. She's often a caricature, or she's often not given agency at all. She's often submissive within the larger family dynamics.

An opportunity to give space and give breath, give air and life to an immigrant story is helpful for everyone. It helps humanize those around you, the grocery workers you see, the front-line health care workers you see, your neighbors, the people in your life.

I just think the show fosters a sense of community, a sense of family, a sense of belonging, a sense of coming together that people are desperately looking for right now.

Amna Nawaz: A sense of community, when we can all really use it.

That is Poorna Jagannathan, star of the new Netflix series "Never Have I Ever."

Thanks for being with us.

Poorna Jagannathan: Thank you. Really appreciate it.

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