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“Late Night” writer/actress Mindy Kaling discusses her plans for Mother’s Day this weekend.

USA TODAY

Historically, on-screen brainiacs have been portrayed as awkward outcasts or irksome overachievers: Sheldon Cooper, Tracy Flick, Steve Urkel.

But Mindy Kaling‘s Netflix comedy “Never Have I Ever” (now streaming) introduces a new breed of bookworm in Devi Vishwakumar (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a 15-year-old Indian-American teen who brazenly pursues boys, talks back to teachers, lies about losing her virginity, and steals booze for classmates after crashing their model UN. She’s witty, self-assured and (mostly) well-liked, while also being incredibly vulnerable. 

More: Mindy Kaling has ‘newfound respect for stay-at-home moms’ while quarantining with her toddler

“Devi is decidedly a nerd and so are her friends, but she’s not a wallflower. And I think we haven’t seen that before,” says Kaling, 40, who based the show in part on her high school self. That said, “I did not have her confidence in terms of me thinking I should be with the hot senior guy. I had none of that – I was a lot quieter than she is.” 

Kaling started writing “Never Have I Ever” early last year after Netflix approached her about doing a semi-autobiographical series. Having written and starred in NBC’s “The Office” and Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” she was excited by the challenge of creating a show for and about teenagers, featuring kids who actually look like kids. (“There’s a ton of teen shows where the average age of the actors is like, 29,” Kaling jokes. “We wanted the kids to really look their age.”) 

While Kaling grew up in a “pretty conventional” two-parent home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1980s and ’90s, “Never Have I Ever” is set in present-day Los Angeles, as Devi reels from her father’s sudden death and butts heads with her mom (Poorna Jagannathan), a devout Hindu. The family’s struggle with grief is the emotional throughline in the 10-episode first season, which is drolly narrated by tennis star John McEnroe.

One heartbreaking detail is how Devi continually sees her dad (Sendhil Ramamurthy, “Heroes”) in dreams – an experience drawn directly from Kaling and co-creator Lang Fisher’s lives. 

“Lang lost her father and I lost my mother years ago,” Kaling says. “After our parents passed away, we both would have these vivid dreams where they were still alive. And in the dream, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re alive? I was mistaken this whole time.’ I think it’s pretty common, but I’d never seen that in a show, so capturing that specific moment was something we both really wanted to do (with Devi).”

In some ways, “Never Have I Ever” is a tribute to Kaling’s own mom, an OB-GYN who died of cancer in 2012. Devi’s mom is also a doctor and has a tough-love approach to parenting. 

“A lot of their personality traits are very similar: the very high standards, which is similar to a lot of Asian parents I know,” Kaling says. “The difference was that I got along very well with my mother and Devi is at odds with hers so much of the time. But that (dynamic) was more interesting to us: What if your favorite parent died and all you were left with was the one who didn’t understand you?” 

The subject of grief resonated with Ramakrishnan, 18, who says she lost her great-grandmother and “first best friend” to Alzheimer’s disease when she was Devi’s age. She also related to Devi’s resistance to Hindu traditions, bristling at her older cousin’s (Richa Moorjani) impending arranged marriage and stubbornly attending Ganesh Puja, a Hindu prayer celebration.

“One thing that really hits home with me and Devi is finding where you find yourself within your own culture,” says Ramakrishnan, a Toronto native who won the role after producers saw audition tapes of 15,000 girls. “When your parents are born elsewhere and you’re born in the Western world – me, Canada; Devi, America – it’s hard to find out where your identity is.” 

Kaling, who does not appear in the show, says it was important to include small but specific cultural details that Indian audiences could relate to. 

“It was really cathartic in the writers’ room to have these Indian writers corroborate the stuff that I thought was so weird (growing up),” Kaling says. “We’re hoping that in a larger way, Indian kids who watch us will be like, ‘Oh, my God, I did that, too. When I was eye-rolling, I was not eye-rolling alone.’ So in that way, I felt greedy, because we finally got to do this stuff that we hadn’t seen on TV and feel like we were normal.” 

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