August 30, 2021
In the opener to Never Have I Ever’s second season, actor Poorna Jagannathan, playing Dr. Nalini Vishwakumar, pounds indignantly on a car window. Nalini had just released her late husband’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean in an emotional ceremony only to discover her 15-year-old daughter, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), kissing her classmate Ben (Jaren Lewison) in the car. “Your father’s ashes have barely begun to drift off to sea,” fumes Nalini, as she knocks Devi on the head and mutters “donkey” in Tamil.
“That opening scene is right out of my amma’s handbook on how to deal with any tough situation: hit your kid on the head and call them a water buffalo,” Jagannathan told The Juggernaut. “Her favorite was ‘avk,’ which is [Tamil for] a donkey that’s broken free from its leash and is now unhinged.”
With her gritted teeth, casual threats of violence, and steady supply of non sequiturs, Jagannathan’s Nalini channels many an autocratic Brown mom, including my own. She harnesses the wrath and protective instincts of a South Asian mother with such aplomb that even I braced for an obligatory slap.
Jagannathan is part of a growing crop of diaspora performers — including Parle Patel, Pinky Patel, and Zarna Garg — across Netflix, YouTube, and TikTok, who play a version of their mothers. Though many diaspora viewers want to move past the confines of overcooked accents and tired plotlines, not much seems to have changed since Lilly Singh popularized the trend on social media as early as 2010. As today’s South Asian artists and content creators pay homage to Brown moms, how do they overhaul cultural stereotypes without reinforcing them? And why do diaspora audiences still find comfort in these older formulations of Brown moms?