Poorna Jagannathan Explains Why It Was So Important for Her to Wear South Asian Brands on 'Never Have I Ever'

The actress talks about her character's style evolution, and why she made it her mission to showcase both her heritage and fashion-forwardness in every outfit.

Never Have I Ever
Photo: Netflix

Poorna Jagannathan is having her moment to shine, and it's about damn time, IMO. The Never Have I Ever actress, who plays Devi's mother, Nalini Vishwakumar, on the hit Netflix series, feels as though her character is finally coming into her own — something you can see from her costumes in the show's latest season.

"For Nalini's style evolution, you can really see that she often wears more traditional pieces like kurtas and sari in the flashbacks when she first comes to the country," Jagannathan tells me over Zoom. "Then, as time progresses, you see her style change to more western silhouettes, like the gorgeous red Bodice dress I wear." The actress is referring to the elegant pleated midi dress she wears in the first episode of season three.

On top of giving a moving on-screen performance, Jagannathan made a conscious effort to break stereotypes along the way. She wanted her character's wardrobe to showcase all the angles of what it's like being an immigrant mother in America, which is something that isn't typically explored on TV.

"It has been a huge privilege to portray a nuanced immigrant woman and mom," she says. "I am an immigrant mom, and I always found the portrayals so lacking and one-dimensional, and so not reflective of who I am, my mother, my aunts, and the women who surround me."

Although subtle, Jagannathan's character puts her love for her heritage on display with every piece she wears. I personally loved how Nalini plays around with different textiles, patterns, and materials, which, as someone who is South Asian, makes me reflect on my own mother's fashion choices while growing up. Her clothes also speak to me as a new mom, since I've battled with how to showcase my heritage through my personal wardrobe, yet still feel like I fit in with the Western world and not feel bothered.

The clothes are just one of the many reasons why Kaling's show resonates with many South Asians.

Never Have I Ever

Working with the show's costume designer, Glinda Suarez, Jagannathan tells me the two were committed to portraying the character as authentically as possible, and even hired professionals to ensure that the saris were tied correctly. Nalini also wears a variety of up-and-coming South Asian designers on the show, and it's hard to miss the actress' excitement when talking about how important it was to highlight those brands and give them a worldwide platform.

"I had no idea who brands like Ikai, Bodice, and Raw Mango were at the start. I'd never seen their designs," she admits, adding the goal was to showcase South Asian designers who create intricate designs in western silhouettes. "But once I did, I knew these were the brands changing the way textiles are made in India with their aesthetics and silhouettes."

Finally, after years of watching shows with one stereotype after another, Nalini's outfits are a true form of representation, making South Asians feel seen.

"Immigrant mothers are so intensely fashion-aware, and yet there's a need to make them feel like a fish out of water to tell that story that they don't belong here," says Jagannathan. "Not only is the push and pull of culture present for [Nalini], but she's also a professional lady who knows who she is and she likes fashion. From the very start, Mindy [Kaling] wanted to present Nalini as an assimilated woman who longs for home at the same time, which is perfectly okay. The contradictions and the clash are just part of the immigrant experience."

Never Have I Ever

Considering so much effort went into each look, it's nearly impossible to choose a favorite. However, Jagannathan revealed she's particularly fond of the beautiful silk Raw Mango look she wore during season three's second episode, for the scene where Kamala was being introduced to a bunch of "eligible men" that the grandmother had set up.

"Raw Mango uses ancient weaving methods that you don't see anymore and puts them into modern silhouettes. They made this gorgeous silk material into a beautiful modern dress," Jagannathan explains. However, sourcing clothes from another country was no easy feat. "Riya Collective helped us source clothes from India. I'm sure you know that can be quite a task itself, and we had [figure it all out] through WhatsApp."

Never Have I Ever
Courtesy of Elisabeth Caren

There were a few well-known brands included in Nalini's wardrobe, too. For workwear, the team opted to dress the successful dermatologist in more modern silhouettes, turning to South Asian labels like Cuyana, a favorite of Megan Markle, for the chic white blazer and beige coat she wears in season three. The character can also be seen in western designer Tory Burch, who has not only been a huge supporter of both Mindy Kaling and the show from the start, but is also a personal favorite for Jagannathan. The actress recently wore a stunning black strapless Tory Burch gown to SummerStage, which I could easily picture her character wearing on the show. (FWIW, I completely understand the pull towards the designer — Tory Burch's pieces marked one of the first times my grandmother, mother, and I collectively agreed on a non-South Asian designer that felt like home.)

Another great example of how her character has been blending both worlds from the start is the scene in season two where Nalini wore a gorgeous purple paisley suit by Etro while flirting with Dr. Jackson, played by Common. The actress revealed that this was 100% intentional, as it was a simple way of showing how no matter where Nalini went, she was intentional about bringing her culture with her, even in a modern silhouette like the suit.

Never Have I Ever

When it comes to personal style, Jagannathan enjoys making a bold statement, and most recently, wore a gorgeous silver Rahul Mishra dress to the premiere of Season 3. She says that she and her character often wear the same brands, but they tend to style the pieces in different ways

"We often laugh about this because when I wear buttons, my first button will start around the naval because I just like to let the whole thing open, while Nalini likes to button everything up to the top."

Although there is still a long way to go when it comes to representation in media, I truly do appreciate the fact that there is finally a major TV show showcasing amazing South Asian brands out there. One that tells the story of a young Indian family learning to love both the culture they were born into and the one they're surrounded by daily.

"It's amazing to have content where you finally feel seen and have a sense of belonging. The show feels like home to many viewers," Jagannathan tells me. And I couldn't agree more.

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