Maitreyi Rameskrishnan chats about representation - Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka
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Netflix’s brightest young star chats to us about role models and challenging stereotypes

Tamil-Canadian actress, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, catches up with Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka about her breakthrough role in hit Netflix series

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Maitreyi Rameskrishnan speaks with the warmth, humour and wisdom of someone beyond her 18 years. On a Zoom call from Toronto, Maitreyi talks about her rise to fame as the lead role in Mindy Kaling’s latest Netflix show Never Have I Ever and the importance of authentic representation. 

Amid a global pandemic, the experience of dealing with lockdown restrictions felt slightly less isolating with this new series to binge-watch in May. Never Have I Ever is a 10-part series, following the life of Devi Vishwakumar, a high school student in Sherman Oaks, California. Having recently recovered from temporary paralysis, and grieving the loss of her father, Devi grows up faster than her peers. Despite this, Devi still has her fair share of boy problems and family drama and is known to always speak her mind.

A wild ride

It’s been a year since the first season of this coming of age rom-com was filmed in LA. Maitreyi describes the whole experience as surreal, saying, “A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to fathom any of this or think I’m capable of this.”

When Mindy Kaling first put out an open casting call on Instagram for her latest project, the word spread like wildfire, with over 15,000 responses. When Maitreyi first found out she had landed the life-changing role, her family was over the moon. “I was with my entire family — my grandma, my mom, my dad, my brother, and my cousin from England who was staying with us. Mindy and Lang called me themselves to tell me. My grandma was screaming and everybody was so hyped! I was so oddly calm, I don’t know why I reacted like that, but I did.” 

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan
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As a fan of Mindy Kaling’s work, Maitreyi describes her as a role model, admiring her ability to ‘do everything’: write, produce, and act, and be so great at all of these things. “I look up to her a lot. She’s like a homie now, I feel like I can talk to her about anything!” Maitreyi even admitted to crying from excitement after seeing that one of her costars was Angela Kinsey from The Office!

Two months after the initial release, Netflix reported 40 million households had viewed the series worldwide (woah!).

Maitreyi remarks that the show was always going to be a success, but she still had not anticipated how popular it would be. “It’s crazy how many people have watched it all over the world! I haven’t even been to these places!”

Critics have praised Maitreyi’s breakthrough performance, the supporting cast, and surprising emotional depth of the teen comedy. Prior to taking on the role, Maitreyi’s main acting experience was comedy in musicals or plays. She explains feeling nervous about being able to do emotional or serious scenes. Despite this, we see her confidently cover a range of teen angst and heightened emotions with unquestionable nuance.

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Brown family representation

Many viewers, particularly from the South Asian community, have felt represented in seeing a family dynamic that looks like their own on TV. In the show, Devi’s family consists of her mother, Nalini, with whom she has a turbulent relationship, and her cousin, Kamala.

If given the power to direct Never Have I Ever, Maitreyi says she would like Devi and Kamala to work together more. “We got a brief glimpse of that in episode 9. It was nice to see Devi have someone in her house who was an ally,” she says.

Despite having this connection with the audiences, Maitreyi shares that there are also people who can’t relate at all and don’t see themselves in Devi. “I think that’s okay,” Maitreyi reflects. “How could one character possibly represent us all? Hopefully, in the coming seasons, with Devi’s growth they will relate, and if not, hopefully, Never Have I Ever has shown other creators that it is possible to write South Asian roles.”

Stereotypes challenged

As the star of a comedy, Maitreyi describes Devi as “super witty and always on her toes – you’re not going to catch her slipping!” Devi has some great one-liners, but Maitreyi says that her favourite line from the script has to be when her on-screen mother calls her love interest a ‘walking HPV infection’! 

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan
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Maitreyi reflects on the shared experiences she has with Devi, of being a teenager, and as a Tamil-Canadian, being raised by immigrant parents in the West. She notes that one of the major differences is Devi’s reckless behaviour, which has even been praised for challenging tired stereotypes of South Asian women. Maitreyi says that while she can also be hot-headed, Devi cares way too much about things she shouldn’t. “I like to think that when I was in high school, I didn’t care about guys or what people thought of me that much,” she says. “If I was friends with Devi in high school, I would just say: ‘Homegirl, calm down. It’s going to be fine!’”

Diversity across the board

Never Have I Ever has a notably diverse cast, representing characters from a range of different ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. Representation is a multifaceted issue, but it affects all of us with the media we consume as we grow up. Maitreyi says that it is only after being in Never Have I Ever, that she realised how much she lacked representation growing up, and how normalised that was. “When I was a kid, and Halloween came around, I would try to figure out who I could be. But nobody looked like me. I ended up looking up to mainly white characters — I aspired to be like Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. It sucks that they couldn’t have looked more like me.”

She told us that this year she was dressing up as Nairobi from the Money Heist gang with friends for Halloween! Maitreyi pauses, and in a moment of sage advice she adds:

“You have to find the story of the protagonist you want in the mirror rather than on the screen.”

The show has been renewed for a second season with a 2021 release, and Maitreyi shares that right now the production team and cast are focusing on staying safe under COVID-19 protocols. 

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