On the hit Netflix show Never Have I Ever, Poorna Jagannathan plays a competitive mother, pushing Princeton on her daughter and serving plenty of side-eye to the other aunties.
Real life is entirely another matter. Jagannathan launched her acting career by reading lines and rehearsing scenes with the very actors who would be trying out for the same roles she was going for. They would collaborate, then go on to compete for Hollywood’s few scant portrayals of South Asian women.
I became aware of Jagannathan’s approach about seven years ago when I was living in Los Angeles. I remarked to her at the time how curious it seemed.
“There’s just so few roles,” she explained. “If one of us gets it, all of us win.”
Like pretty much every industry, Hollywood has a diversity problem. In recent years, as workplaces have struggled to change systemic inequities and foster greater collaboration, I’ve often thought about Jagannathan’s strategy as a concrete example of an inclusive business practice—and one that existed before we had the language to describe it in those terms.
What do I mean? For a long time, diversity and its place in institutions has been additive: new people, new ideas. But they existed alongside the so-called mainstream, and had to gain entry under the old rules. It often felt that there was only room for a few of us, maybe only one, to proverbially “check a box.”
What’s become clear, especially since the murder of George Floyd, is that true progress is actually changing how we operate. The shift acknowledges that people of color might work in ways that are worth not only including in the mainstream, but cause for redefining it entirely. Collaborating with the competition for the mutual uplift of a community seems one of those things.
As Never Have I Ever surged to number one on Netflix earlier this month, I caught up with Jagannathan to further dissect the approach—and to tell her I think I finally understood.
“If there is even one South Asian character, it’s such a win,” she says. “It opens up an ecosystem so that South Asian characters will have siblings and parents and boyfriends and girlfriends. It just opens up the door for more South Asian characters, and that has a ripple effect for all of us.”
What’s striking about Jagannathan’s story is the way that she and her fellow actors, faced with a scarcity of South Asian roles, met the problem with abundance and generosity.
This idea of working inclusively and collaboratively may still be subversive, but it’s also successful. Indeed, Hollywood feels filled with examples worthy of study and imitation by other industries. In 2005, Franklin Leonard started the Black List, a yearly ranking of Hollywood’s most popular unproduced screenplays. Dozens of scripts have gone on to become feature films and even win Oscars.
An outspoken critic of the lack of diversity in Hollywood, Leonard started the list anonymously in response to a dearth of quality scripts and a desire to open up the industry to new talent. “The best revenge,” he said on the “Art of Power” podcast recently, when asked about how he deals with rejection, “is to keep moving and prove them wrong. The only takeaway from a rejection is to keep it moving and wave to them when you figure it out.”
Some other ways this behavior might manifest: sharing pitch decks, comparing salary offers, banding together around important issues. SeeHer is a movement within the Association of National Advertisers trying to increase representation and accurate portrayals of women and girls in marketing, advertising, media, and entertainment. “While some of our members are fierce competitors, they’ve come together to support our mission to advance gender equity as they recognize their collective power to transform culture,” says president Jeannine Shao Collins. “This will only happen if we all work together.”
One way more collaborative approaches are taking hold in how we work: the growth of cohort-based training versus one-to-one coaching. Era Ray is the co-founder of the women’s leadership network Salute, which stands for South Asian Ladies Unite to Empower. The number-one reason women join Salute, she says, is because they are looking for community.
“When executive leaders come speak to us, we often hear they wish they had this type of support system as they were rising stars in their companies,” she says. “Rather than viewing their peers as competitors, the mindset is shifting. We see more and more women seeking a support system to celebrate achievements, meaningfully connect with one another, and help each other grow.”
Anyone who works to diversify spaces, storytelling, or organizations knows all too well the pressure of representation. Now in its third season with one more to go, Never Have I Ever initially fielded such criticism. The immigrant parents were stereotypically strict. The first season focused on Hindu South Asians, not Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or other religions. The accents were not sounding quite right.
What happens when an ecosystem opens up, and more characters and stories and nuances are added? The pressure eases.
“When Never Have I Ever came out, the weight of representation fell on one show. It felt overwhelming. There was an expectation that this one show could carry all our stories and that was impossible,” Jagannathan says. “In three years, things have changed.” Progress is slow, but it’s happening: Ms. Marvel features a cast of South Asians, as did the most recent season of Bridgerton. The second season of Netflix’s reality show about arranged marriage, Indian Matchmaking, includes a turbaned Sikh doctor looking for a wife.
In season two of Never Have I Ever, Devi is threatened by, then befriends the new Muslim girl at school, Aneesa Qureshi. In season three, Nalini makes a friend, Rhyah, played by South Asian actress Sarayu Blue.
“With more of us, we feel more present, more seen,” says Jagannathan. “If it was just me saying we eat with our hands, we take our shoes off, we don’t put spices on the table… that’s different if I just say it, versus being validated from three to four people on set. Our experiences are shared. Shared experiences lead to shared action.”
The shift in this season toward more nuanced representation is undeniable. The teenage protagonist, Nalini’s daughter Devi, finally gets an Indian boyfriend. For her part, Nalini softens, allowing her daughter to date and showing more understanding and affection toward her.
Two key workplace lessons emerge from supporting your competition: One is that you learn more. “There’s a rigor of script analysis when you are working with another person,” Jagannathan says. “The difference is you are always always learning.” She says the stakes feel especially high for South Asian actors because if nobody gets the role, it might be recast. “If it doesn’t go to one of us, it will go to a white person,” she says. “That’s the easiest thing to do.”
And that explains the other lesson: to cheer for something greater than yourself. “We are so underrepresented,” Jagannathan says. “We know one person’s win … you just have to know that it’s your win too.”