'Never Have I Ever' Director Kabir Akhtar Breaks Down The Show's Identity Politics

The Emmy-award winning director, who helmed two episodes of the Netflix hit 'Never Have I Ever' unpacks the politics of representation.
A still from 'Never Have I Ever'
A still from 'Never Have I Ever'

Among the many things that director Kabir Akhtar did not anticipate about Never Have I Ever’s global success was the fact that it would be loved by those in their 30s and 40s.

“I’m still getting messages from old friends who I haven’t spoken to in years. The show really broke through,” he said from his Los Angeles home, over a Skype call.

Akhtar started off as an editor but later transitioned into directing and helmed the opening segment for the 63rd Emmy Awards while also directing a segment for the 84th Academy Awards. In 2016, he won an Emmy in the Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Comedy Series category for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a win that subsequently led to a lot more opportunities.

He has a Bollywood connection too—he is a cousin to filmmakers Zoya and Farhan Akhtar—but isn’t too familiar with the industry.

For Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Never Have I Ever, Akhtar was bought on board to direct two episodes (..Been the loneliest boy in the world/
...Started a nuclear war).

In this interview, the director spoke about the politics of representation, finding the humour right and some of the problematic aspects of the show.

Edited excerpts:

Kabir Akhtar with Maitreyi Ramakrishnan who plays Devi and Jaren Lewison who plays Ben in 'Never Have I Ever'
Kabir Akhtar with Maitreyi Ramakrishnan who plays Devi and Jaren Lewison who plays Ben in 'Never Have I Ever'

For most parts, I had a lot of fun watching the show and I’m guessing you had a lot of fun directing it.

It was my favourite job I had last year. The cast and crew was great and the script was great. There was a lot of scope to bring something to the characters, like breathe life into it. Sometimes you get handed scripts that require a lot of figuring out before you film it. There’s a lot of pieces that don’t quite fit in, but these scripts were great from the start. It really gave us a lot of opportunity and time to play around with it and find different shapes and performances and stories to tell. The scripts were very funny and very sharp.

People are confused between Team Ben and Team Paxton but to be honest, I’m Team Trent. I think he’s hilarious and so unexpectedly funny.

I just said in an interview that I was Team Trent! He was great and so much fun. Credit to the show runners that you start to see Trent more and more as the season goes on. As you can see, he’s so talented as an actor. Every take was a home-run.

So if you’re directing only a couple episodes as director, where does the involvement begin? Does the collaboration begin during the writing process?

On any show, you walk in on a piece of it. You get scripts ahead of time and you always have time to work with the writers. I was always walking around with the script in my hand 24 hours a day as soon as I would get it. I’d constantly ask questions and think about how it would look while filming. I’d make sure that all these pieces will be able to be realised in four dimensions. There’s just tonnes of questions in my mind—like story questions and logistical questions. I needed to know the answers so I could plan ahead of time with the producer and the writer. You got to be on the same page creatively. While filming, all those questions are answered and then we have the creative ability to improvise.

How do you create a character that is not reduced to the colour of their skin but at the same time reflect the idea that their perspective is informed by that very racial identity? Like, you don’t want to create a caricature but you also don’t want to erase the fact that Devi is an Indian-American girl.

Well, it’s interesting because identity is so difficult to define for every one of us. But I think you succeed at that because all your lived experiences become your backstories. It’s not necessarily what our days are about. Likewise one of the main storylines on this show is about Devi trying to get it on with this guy and also her trying to figure out who she is in school.

Luckily it was written in such a way that the primary storyline of the season was about her and Paxton, then she lies about it and the affects everything else. None of that is about her ethnicity, that’s just the story of someone in trouble.

The show talks about where she’s from only when she’s at home. It depicts cultural differences and conflicts between her mother and her about being a student and how she doesn’t want her to go to these parties with hot guys.

But Devi’s headspace is like yeah, sure but what matters is going to parties with hot guys! Which is interesting because we’re looking at the lengths of negotiation for an immigrant parent and for the child of immigrants. At the same time, it’s not making a lot of explicit points about that. It’s all shown in the context of a relatable high school story.

Darren Barnet and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in a still from 'Never Have I Ever'.
Darren Barnet and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in a still from 'Never Have I Ever'.

Do you think brown stories are only accessible if they’re refurbished in a template that’s already been done? We’ve seen the high school set up and we’ve seen variations of the awkward nerdy girl who wants to get laid. Is showing the person of colour do the same things a white girl could do the only way to normalise a brown identity?

That’s an interesting point. I think no. It’s not the only way to do it especially when the story is that of a first-generation daughter of an immigrant. I was a first-generation immigrant kid growing up here (US) too. So much of the struggle is the friction between who you find yourself becoming as you grow up here versus what your family expects of you.

Our parents were very supportive just like Devi’s parents were very supportive but they didn’t understand the nuances of growing up here. I think it’s hard enough for any parent to relate to their child’s generation because they are not a part of it. Devi is growing up here having a first language that’s not her parents’ first language. And so you illustrate those differences against the backdrop of a high school where the contrast is the highest and which also makes it relatable. I don’t think the point is necessarily to make it relatable to a white audience.

It seemed lot of the show’s big moments were reverse engineered to fit into the high school milieu because that somehow becomes an easy entry point for the average American to grasp a new culture.

I don’t feel that way because it was my experience too. I found the story extremely authentic because I grew up here and the Indian culture and ideals seeped in there and I’m from Philadelphia! Especially in high school I wasn’t really trying to show off the brown-ness at all, especially at that time, it was not cool and I was trying to get away from it, saying ‘don’t see my skin colour first’. Kids try to do everything they can to minimise their race. Kids there were like, long hair and skateboards and I wanted that to be my identity—what I do and not where I’m from.

I think a critical moment in this show—it’s not even in the one that I directed—is when Devi’s at school in a saree for Ganesh Puja and she sees Paxton. Maybe not that long ago, that guy in a real high school would make fun of her for wearing this strange garment but in this show he compliments her effectively, making her less conscious about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

So by getting the guy who she’s into to validate a part of her ethnicity, you’ve shifted the notion from cringe to, well, cool.

Yes! Because it is cool now. It’s funny to me how cool as a concept changes over time, right? It used to be cool to have super-long hair, that was the thing, but it sounds absurd now. It was cool to have a flip phone and that has changed now. I think the bigger idea is to show that it’s cool for people to accept they are different. While all the characters in the show, whether it’s Fabiola or Eleanor, all these people are from different places and while they are depicted as social outsiders, ultimately the show’s message is that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Poorna Jagannathan in 'Never Have I Ever'.
Poorna Jagannathan in 'Never Have I Ever'.

I felt that this was a show that wore a woke outfit but it was also sneakily conservative. There was a bizarre scene in the Ganesh Puja episode where you have this one woman, who is shown as a literal outcast, who tells Kamala to not make the mistake that she made (of marrying against her parents’ will)

Even with Poorna’s character, we see that she’s uncomfortable in the Ganesh Puja setting but when she’s Skyping with Kamala’s potential in-laws, she wants to talk about how well she cooks and not about her PhD.

It wasn’t very clear what her politics were and why she shifts from being seemingly progressive to an overprotective conservative mother.

I think that’s another interesting flip sign of the immigrant experience here. We talk about the children facing an identity crisis but I think it’s true for the parents too. And the show reflects what it’s like for her. Someone who left their motherland but perhaps not the values that were important to them. Her character is in a place where she’s trying to fit in but is also evolving as she lives here.

As far as being a parent is concerned, all they know is the model they were a part of when they had parents back home. They know how to do that. I think there is an internal friction that happens when essentially you switch cultures. Like in India, many things are accepted while here some of those aren’t. Even though that’s something you feel and love, you’d think that maybe I should be a part of this now that I’m here in order to survive.

Wouldn’t you think, now that we have the opportunity to tell diverse stories there’s a real chance here to subvert archaic notions of what it means to be an immigrant instead of confirming pre-existing stereotypes?

I’ve talked about this and I’ve seen criticism for this show where some people felt that they are South Asian American and this show didn’t show them their experience. There are a billion people in that culture, you can’t create one show that stands for all of them. I agree that it’s not everyone’s experience but when you look at white families, there’s literally hundreds of shows there. At this rate, this is the first one for an Indian-American girl. I’m excited because I think the success of this show will help pave the way for more to be done. Obviously one can’t stand for the whole. I think Barack Obama had a lot of pressure for being the first African American President and he held himself so professionally that it makes it easier for whoever is next. I think it’s hard for any space to be the first.

Richa Moorjani who plays Kamla in 'Never Have I Ever'
Richa Moorjani who plays Kamla in 'Never Have I Ever'

Hmm. So you are saying it’s unfair to place the burden of a collective identity on just one show.

Yeah, I do think it’s unfair. I think all of us have that thought process and we have to remember to be more fair to ourselves because as a culture we want more to be shared about us. Say, you’re doing a show about people in Bandra. Even then you can do many different shows about many different people and someone who’s lived their entire life there might still find it inauthentic. Now remember that Never Have I Ever is a show about an entire diaspora. Of course it can’t be fully identifiable for everyone but if people even saw a piece of themselves in there, even that is a full step forward in a world where that hasn’t been the case yet.

Do you feel that there is genuine investment by the powerful streaming sites in diverse shows or do you think they’re simply monetising on ‘brand wokeness’? Many companies have cashed in on the idea of inclusivity.

You know what I think is making the biggest difference? The decision makers. As that pool becomes more diverse it moves from tokenism to authentic representation. Back in the day, every TV show had one black character and one Asian character or one Hispanic character and they’ll all be stereotyped but eventually they started to become more and more fleshed out. I think that it is the key. You see the transition from gently checking the boxes to actually doing stories about fully realised characters. As decision makers diversify, there’s more people in the room saying this is performative, this is not authentic. I myself have been in that place. And a few times, I’ve also been told by the people in charge—when I was up for a job or something—that I was the wrong kind of diverse for the job.

What does that mean?

That my skin colour was the wrong one. I’ve been told that they’re looking for an Asian. Haha, I mean, like, India is in Asia! I truly believe it’s not malicious, it’s just a lack of understanding. People have mandates from up above, the corporate structure, to check boxes and make sure there’s representation. Even if it’s well-intentioned, by the time it comes down a few levels, people are worried about making sure they’ve got the numbers right. I’s important for a whole paradigm to shift and as more and more people get opportunities, it will keep getting better.

I remember this quote by Todd Phillips where he said that he moved away from making the ‘Hangover’ series because comedy is not the same as it was before and that woke culture led to its demise. You have to be politically correct all the time. As someone who dabbles in comedy and also belongs to a minority community, what do you feel about that?

I think there’s two things you can do about that. One is to make sure that multiple different point of views are represented on set so somebody can be like, ‘excuse me, I know you are not being malicious but you haven’t thought this through from another point of view which is not yours’.

Sometimes you don’t know what someone else’s point of view is. Sometimes I’ve raised my hand and said ‘wait, does this also seem this way to you?’ And that specific joke gets changed or rewritten. It’s a great feeling to be able to shift a small part of the discourse into the right direction.

You have to try very hard to be sensitive towards the construction of jokes and comedy and to make sure they’re succeeding and being funny by virtue of being unexpected and not by the virtue of being offensive.

Taking shots at yourself is fine and punching up at people in power is very different from taking shots down, you know. Because that just seems mean and spiteful and I don’t find that funny. I don’t like representing those point of views as comedic because they’re not. And they’re hurting somebody. Comedy doesn’t have to be hurtful. At its best it’s illuminating and surprising, which is what makes it emotionally satisfying.

Have you made good use of the pandemic time? What are you most excited to go back to?

I think this is very challenging. I have had bursts of creativity followed by bursts of nihilism. It’s very much like being stuck in the same play, now that it’s been 11 weeks. I’m dying to get back to work. I feel very lucky every day that I get to do this job I love every aspect of my work so much. It will be different in a way for a while because film sets are so energetic and very close quarters.

What are the shows you’ve been watching?

I just finally watched The Wire. I was so excited because I’ve wanted to watch it forever. I just watched another show called Dispatches from Elsewhere, I think I’ll start Ozark next. Right now, I’m also working on developing my own show.