The past two years have been an education for Maitreyi, to say the least. Last year, I interviewed her for Teen Vogue right before the premiere of Never Have I Ever, her first professional acting role. When we meet again, this time in person in New York, she’s already been transformed into someone more energetic, self-assured, and unafraid. She feels it too.
Take, for example, the way her attitude has shifted regarding her individual responsibility to represent South Asians in film and television. Since season two came out, Twitter has come to something of a consensus that, as one fan put it, Devi is “one of the messiest characters in existence.” During our conversation, Maitreyi references the tweet — she loves it. Devi is unhinged at times. She is a jerk, Maitreyi agrees. But so what?
“Season one me would have said I feel like I have to defend [the show] because I love it and I’m so protective of it,” she explains. “But now, I don’t feel like I have to defend it in any way. I feel like it actually speaks for itself, and I have grown from my 17-year-old self to understand that not everyone’s going to relate to it. And that’s okay. That’s not an attack, it’s just a reality.”
“It’s a realization of the fact that we need more representation,” Maitreyi, who is Tamil-Canadian, adds. “We need more stories, we need more storytellers. We can’t just keep relying on Mindy Kaling to keep making all these shows. I want her to keep making more. But I need more people with her.”
After all, discourse about representation in film and TV is still in its infancy, though it may not feel that way when we’re in the thick of it. The power at networks and studios still often lies in the hands of white men. Marginalized people are still receiving milestone nominations and wins during awards season. As for Maitreyi, she’s had a year of learning the mechanics of getting representation onscreen from the inside, while fielding more than enough feedback from the outside. She has come of age at the start of Hollywood’s belated embrace of diverse stories, its questioning of prevalent stereotypes, and she has felt the frustration that comes with that.
“I love Mindy Kaling so much. I love her so much as a boss, of course, a mentor, but also a friend. I truly do love her as someone I can lean on when it comes to these kinds of conversations,” Maitreyi says. “Same thing with Hasan Minhaj, a great guy. But reality is, we still only have a handful of South Asian representation. What I want to see is [more] when you dwindle it down to South Asian female representation, and then you dwindle it down even more to young South Asian female representation, right?”
She continues, “Because my first appearance of seeing someone that looked like me was Mindy, in The Office, Mindy Project, whatever — I thought it was really awesome that she was a comedian, she was funny. But then I was also like, ‘You’re, like, a grown woman. I can’t relate to Mindy Lahiri’s problems.’”