Over the years, Richa Moorjani has built a loyal fanbase by portraying myriad roles but the national spotlight is shining on the Indian American actress like never before, courtesy her starring role of Kamala on Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age rom-com on Netflix, “Never Have I Ever.”
In 2019, when Kaling put out an open casting call on social media in search of three “desi ladies” to play the protagonist Devi, her mom Nalini and her over-achieving cousin Kamala for the then untitled show, about 15,000 applicants made their intentions clear, including Moorjani, known for roles in shows such as “9-1-1,” “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “The Mindy Project.” And now, just over a year later, as she is basking in the glory of her success, she’s clearly glad that she did.
“I submitted a self-taped audition and from that I got called in for a final in-person audition in front of Mindy, Lang Fisher (co-creator of the show), the director and casting directors,” Moorjani recalled to India-West. “A few days later, I was driving when I got the call from my agents letting me know I booked the part. I had to pull over to avoid getting into an accident due to how excited I was! I then sat there in my car and FaceTimed my whole family to tell them the news, and everyone was ecstatic.”
The first season of the original series has been a critical success, with viewers flocking in droves to binge-watch the teen drama, which claimed the No. 1 spot on Netflix in many countries within a week of its debut April 27.
Just a few weeks ago, how many people would have thought that a show about the complicated life of a modern-day first generation Indian American teenage girl Devi (played by young and effervescent Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and inspired by Kaling’s own childhood, would be lapped up by audiences worldwide?
But when you watch the show, you realize that “Never Have I Ever,” which puts an Indian American family front-and-center, not only fills a void for South Asians everywhere but also has infinite mass appeal because of the universality of its themes.
“I think the South Asian community has been craving a show like this for so long. A show with South Asians in the lead whose experiences are influenced by their culture but they aren’t defined by it,” Moorjani told India-West. “A show that breaks stereotypes, normalizes being a bicultural person in this country and shows other people that at the end of the day, our experiences aren’t very different than any other American’s experiences. It’s also amazing to see how much this show has resonated with non-South Asians all around the globe. And I think that’s because of the many universal themes in the series that are relatable for anyone, combined with the fact that the show is both hilarious and extremely heartfelt at the same time.”
Kaling – whom Moorjani called “truly brilliant and one of the most hard-working people she’s ever met” – too, expressed her disbelief on social media at how the show is resonating with people across the spectrum.
Moorjani plays Kamala – a fully fleshed out character – who is Devi’s older cousin from India and moves to Southern California to live with her and her mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) while pursuing a Ph.D. from Caltech. She is also headed for an arranged marriage.
While Kamala is Devi’s “sweet, brilliant, humble and seemingly perfect older cousin” – which is why Devi sometimes resents her – it is also a nuanced and textured character vacillating between what her traditional family deems appropriate for her and what her heart desires.
“Although she sort of comes off as a goody two-shoes at the start, you see as the series progresses that Kamala has many insecurities and pressures from family/society she is grappling with like many other young South Asian women, and her optimism and desire to please others often gets in her way of being truly happy,” Moorjani explained. “This is something I have grappled with in my own life, and therefore it was quite easy for me to connect to Kamala’s character.”
Since Kamala is from India and Moorjani was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, she obviously had to put on an accent for the role, but revealed that it wasn’t necessarily a challenge for her in part because she’s lived in India, and has many South Indian relatives/friends with similar sounding accents that she could draw from.
“I tried to be very conscious of doing the accent that I thought would be accurate for the character (because there are so many different Indian accents), and I really didn’t want to do anything that would offend anyone,” she told India-West. “So, I worked with a dialect coach and listened to hours of YouTube videos to make sure I was doing my best to sound as authentic as possible. Doing accents is one of my favorite parts of the craft of acting, and I always enjoy getting to learn/work on a new skill as part of doing any character.”
Season 1 ended with several open-ended storylines, including Kamala’s. As fans wait with bated breath to see if Netflix renews the show for a second season, Moorjani told India-West that she has many hopes for Kamala’s journey in a potential Season 2.
“I hope that Kamala gets the chance to break out of her struggle with meeting other people’s expectations, and she gains the confidence to do what she wants finally without any fear,” she told India-West. “I hope that Kamala and Devi develop a much stronger bond than in Season 1, and we see a beautiful big sister-little sister relationship. And it would be great if Kamala could have some friends in Season 2!”
Just like the character Devi, a lot of Indian American kids spend their childhood struggling to find a sense of belonging. Fortunately, for Moorjani, that wasn’t the case.
“I always felt very connected and proud of my culture,” she reflected. “However, I know many people who grew up just like Devi, feeling detached from their culture and even rejecting it at times. And I think all of us first generation kids can relate to not feeling Indian enough or American enough in different situations.”
Even though Hollywood hasn’t fully embraced diversity, Moorjani concurred that this show is an important step in the right direction.
“The fact that this show has had such an incredible response all over the world is proof that stories like this are so badly needed and wanted. I’ve seen so much progress in the types of projects and opportunities here since I moved to Los Angeles eight years ago,” Moorjani told India-West. “But there is definitely much more work that needs to be done. The shift is happening, and my hope is that we see many more stories highlighting different South Asian and other minority experiences because there are so many!”
Kaling is a trailblazer in the business, telling these never-before-told stories and empowering more and more South Asians to chase their dreams.
“Kaling is a powerhouse,” exclaimed Moorjani. “She’s an inspiration to millions of people (not just people of color) because of her unapologetic way of taking up space in an industry that has for so long never given people like her a chance. She and Lang Fisher both made the whole cast feel so cared for, and it was so nice to feel like working on this project was such a collaborative experience.”