Following the sleeper success of Netflix original Never Have I Ever Martin Carr recently spoke to director Kabir Akhtar about his love for this project…
What initially attracted you to the project?
I read about it in the trades and couldn’t believe it when I saw they were making this show. My reaction was, wait, someone is going to tell a story about a first generation Indian American teenager? That was me and I had never seen anything on television like that as a kid growing up, so I knew I had to be a part of this.
In your opinion how important is the theme of social acceptance to the show?
So many high school stories are about whether or not you fit in and whether or not you need to. In the Eighties and Nineties all the high school stories were about people who didn’t fit in and how they could. I think now the storytelling is so much more modern, and a show like this was fun, because it wasn’t saying you have to fit in, and even that it could be empowering and better in the long run to just be yourself and find out who you are. This show faces down head on what it’s like to be from an underrepresented group, not just on television but in popular culture. Devi as a first generation Indian American teenager coping with loss in the family, alongside Fabiola struggling with coming out to family and friends. I think it’s really empowering to see these characters who are so relatable and accessible, all trying to find their place in society.
I believe the show explores universal truths within the culture in terms of teenagers growing up, but does so from a multicultural angle. In your opinion how accurate is that?
When have you ever seen an Indian family on television portrayed with this kind of depth in a half hour comedy? I wonder whether the title Never Have I Ever speaks to that in a subtle way. I can’t imagine the impact it would have had on me and others like me as kids growing up in America, if it had been treated as the norm. I think for first generation kids, especially teenagers, it can be a struggle to find your identity. Reconciling the differences between the culture your parents know and where you find yourself, oftentimes leads the charge in terms of understanding the country you live in. It is particularly eye opening to watch Devi struggle with just trying to have fun and be cool, while her mother doesn’t understand the day to day of what her high school life is like. Obviously her mum loves and cares about her, but she is trying to provide for Devi the way she herself knows which is not necessarily compatible in Devi’s American life.
How do you think the comparative generation gap feeds into that on this show?
As I mentioned before, Devi as your lead is struggling with reconciling the differences between where she is and where her parents want her to be. It is hard enough adapting to the fluid dynamics of high school life, in terms of where you want to fit in and who you think you are and who others think you want to be. At the same time, figuring out how you translate that in your home, so that parents understand where you are and who you feel like you are can be very difficult. It’s a situation where home life is pulling you in one direction, while your heart is pulling you in another just by virtue of being a member of society.
How did you maintain the tonal balance amongst so many delicate issues?
I think directing comedies or dramas is different these days. Comedies have dramatic moments and dramas have comedic moments. However, storytelling is so sophisticated now it’s not like sitcoms in the old days with three jokes a page and dramas which were dark and serious. There are a lot of shades and grey areas which I think are really fun to explore, because it feels very authentic to the human experience. Never Have I Ever is definitely a comedy and is trying to tell a fun story, but it is about someone facing challenges while any dramatic moments have to resonate with an audience and feel genuine. One of the best things about doing a show which is comedic at heart is having these moments to communicate a serious story, but then using comedy to undercut it at the last minute.
How important is the notion and representation of family in this project?
Family is a really important theme in the series especially because Devi has her family at home, but then her family of friends at school. I think one of my favourite things about the whole season was episode six, where the main story pauses to explore Ben, who had mostly been a foil and side character up to that point. To explore in depth his own family life as a way of exposing and understanding him, gives the audience a lot of empathy towards someone who had been, up to that point, a bit of a jerk. One of the greatest ills in society these days is the lack of empathy for other people and other points of view. Although it is easy through five episodes to write him off, once we all stop and take a closer look at who he is and why he acts the way he does, I think it is very powerful, and this show could have easily breezed past all that. By taking the detour to understand another point of view and to do so honestly is stunning, because people are really getting behind it online. I think that speaks to the power of trying to understand family situations, which is tricky enough to do in a television show, let alone real life.
What projects are you working on in isolation that you can discuss?
Not a lot really, but directing has always been my dream job and it is a thrill to have gotten to this point. In the context of isolation I will say having been unable to work now for nearly three months has been challenging. I love doing what I do and feel so lucky that I get to do it. I think so many people don’t love their jobs and do them just because they need to, and having worked in this industry for twenty years, I have reached a point where I truly love what I do every day.
Describe your perfect Sunday afternoon.
That’s easy! I am a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, so a perfect Sunday for me is to get a cheese steak, watch the Eagles win, and go out to the park. So I think the greatest Sunday night of my life is when the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super bowl a few years ago.
Many thanks to Kabir Akhtar for taking the time for this interview.