Early reviews are pouring in for Indian American actor/writer/producer Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age comedy on Netflix, “Never Have I Ever,” which is set to premiere April 27. The previews conclude that all the hype for the show, rooted in Indian culture and not just motivated by it, was worth it. Award-winning Indian American choreographer Joya Kazi is among those instrumental in lending the show its authenticity.
The Los Angeles, California-based Kazi not only choreographed dance sequences and picked experienced dancers for this 10-episodic series, but also looked at costume renderings alongside the show’s costume designer, Salvador Perez.
The show, which is about the complicated life of a modern-day first generation Indian American teenage girl, is inspired by Kaling’s own childhood. Young and promising Indo-Canadian actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who plays the starring role, is making her onscreen debut with the series.
Kazi, a trained dancer in Kathak, Odissi and Bharatanatyam, told India-West that for her, preservation and sanctity of Indian dance and culture is of prime importance and that the show’s creators gave her complete creative control, helping her realize her mission.
“A lot of times on shows, they’ll ask me for the costumes but then, in their mind, it’s like everyone wears a saree,” Kazi told India-West. “A 15-year-old is not going to wear a saree. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t have to be costumes that are full with sequins; that’s not regular Indian costuming. So having a nice wardrobe, classy Indian silks, lehengas, salwar kameez, etc.”
Spelling out details of the association, Kazi, who’s previously worked on multiple films, TV shows and commercials, said: “The thing that was so amazing about this project is that they were so open to everything that I said. Most of the time in the past what has happened is that they’ll bring you in as an experienced Bollywood/Indian classical dance choreographer but they won’t listen to you or acknowledge your expertise on what should and shouldn’t happen. But here, how I’m going to choreograph, style, Salvadore was really open to looking at all of my costume designs, allowing me to pick the jewelry, with the color palette…”
“Never Have I Ever” is created by executive producer Kaling, with Lang Fisher serving as executive producer, showrunner and writer. Just about every South Asian, including Kazi, is an admirer of Kaling’s work. Thousands of South Asian actors responded to Kaling’s nationwide open casting call for the central character, Devi, and other characters. But the fact that the show’s producers reached out to Kazi speaks volumes about her talent.
“They asked me if I was willing to choreograph for the show and, of course, I was so excited because you know, Mindy Kaling,” Kazi told India-West. “I hopped on to the project as a choreographer and sent them different choreographic samples, different songs from different time periods as they were figuring out what they wanted. After Mindy and Lang confirmed the song and style, I also did casting…For me it’s always been a priority that I’m casting people that are trained or connected to Indian classical dance technique, or just Indian dancing because with a lot of Hollywood projects what happens is you end up getting a choreographer not trained in Indian styles, doesn’t know anything about Bollywood and just wants to make something repetitive…lots of color, and give it filtered, appropriated ethnic idea of what Indian dance in Bollywood is. I wanted to make sure the look, the styling, the costume, the dancers, everything, was authentic and not just 50 million moves in every direction you can think of.”
But not just behind the camera, Kazi, who believes in bringing structure and technique into Bollywood dancing, will be showcasing her talent on-screen, too.
“A couple of weeks into rehearsals, I was told that Mindy and Lang saw all the headshots and they want you to be the lead dancer who’s associated with the character Preeti in the show…,” Kazi recalled to India-West. “I was like, ‘Oh! Ok. Sure, why not?’”
Kazi, who put a lot of work into the project, admitted that the process was overwhelming but concluded that the experience was extremely rewarding.
One of the key reasons why “Never Have I Ever” speaks to Kazi and perhaps will speak to every Indian American out there is that it gets it right on Indian American representation and is devoid of the usual tropes.
“I know we always talk about cultural representation and how important that is that I think kind of loses meaning because we talk about it so much but we just don’t see it. You are seeing people on television that are not having to play a stereotypical role of like a nerdy kid at school who is socially awkward, or, you have to be a doctor, or, you can’t be cool, or you can’t think about regular teenage things,” Kazi told India-West. “It’s so nice to see real characters that you can relate with. I think it’s also about having writers of that experience is so important.”
The show’s premise hits home for Kazi, who was born in India, but emigrated to the U.S. with her parents just before her first birthday. She acknowledged, just like the show’s 15-year-old protagonist, having to deal with the constant pull and push between “how Indian am I” or “how American am I?”
Kazi credits her mother for instilling a love for Indian art and culture in her at a very young age, but also said that she was unable to share her experiences of attending all these myriad Indian music and dance classes with anyone in school because no one seemed to know anything about it.
“I always felt like I’m not Indian enough in America and when I went to India, I felt too American,” Kazi told India-West. “Just like Devi, who has a strict Indian mom but goes to an American school. She doesn’t have to be this stereotypical nerd that doesn’t have fun. She is able to show this perfect experience of being a South Asian girl in America. You know, just being a teenager and dealing with teenage things.”
Growing up, she said, the closest she felt to a character was that of Lizzie McGuire, “a Caucasian blonde girl,” so she is very excited that teenagers today will have more relatable role models.
“This is why representation is so important,” stated the multifaceted artist, who has been dreaming of a career in dance ever since she was a little girl. She added that the first time she saw a classical Indian dancer – an Odissi dancer – on American TV was in the Michael Jackson music video, “Black or White.” And that video she saw when she was three, also triggered her passion for Indian classical dance. Her mother took her for her first dance class, an Odissi dance class, when she was four.
Kazi is confident that Indian American audiences will embrace the show.
“Even in my ‘30s, I’m so excited to watch this show,” said Kazi. “I feel like the teenage Joya is going to come back. Everybody on set knew it was going to be something so special.”
She summed up her experience on the show as “positive and encouraging.”
Kazi, founder of the renowned dance company Joya Kazi Unlimited, has been showing off her dancing chops from India to America.
The expressive and nuanced dancer, who has been choreographing Indian dance routines for the NBA games since 2014, also choreographed for the first NBA games in India in 2019.
“To be able to watch that choreography that I choreographed here in the States on television and see Priyanka Chopra and all these celebrities everywhere watching was surreal,” she said.
Her run on Indian TV doesn’t end there. In 2019, she created a dance tribute for Madhuri Dixit, performing to her iconic songs. That clip, showing Kazi’s superb and fluid dance moves, went viral and was featured on Dixit’s TV Show, “Dance Deewane.” It also ended up being nominated as one of the ‘Top 5 Concept Videos’ at the Universal Dance Awards held in Hollywood, Calif. She not only became the lone South Asian to have won this honor, she was also in great company. She was featured alongside celebrity choreographer Brian Friedman, who has choreographed many popular music artists, including Britney Spears.
“That’s kind of what I’ve always wanted to so. My dream was always to bring Indian dance to the world. You definitely want recognition within your own community but you also want to show the Western world what the beauty of Indian dance is…It’s not just fun, lively, energetic, repetitive. There’s so much tradition, and training and hard work that goes into our art,” Kazi told India-West. “To be able to take my training from an artistic world and bring it into the world of entertainment and get recognition from Hollywood to Bollywood just brings it all full circle for me.”
Kazi, who aims to bridge the gap between the arts world and the entertainment world and teaches internationally, added it shouldn’t be the question of either/or; both the worlds can co-exist.
“I’m proud to be seen as an Indian classical dancer but also be able to have people in Hollywood just pick up the phone and call me to choreograph for a TV show or commercial. It’s definitely possible,” said Kazi.