Never Have I Ever: Director Kabir Akhtar on Representation and On-Set Fun

Never Have I Ever on Netflix. Photo courtesy Netflix
Never Have I Ever on Netflix. Photo courtesy Netflix /

Never Have I Ever brings Indian-Americans to the fore, which means a lot to director Kabir Akhtar. He told Show Snob about representation and the directing process.

Never Have I Ever, the new teen comedy from Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, streams on Netflix from April 27. The show is already being praised for bringing representation to the genre by centering Indian-Americans.

We spoke to director Kabir Akhtar about what the show means to him and the viewers, fun on-set moments, and how different genres and skills impact each other.

Show Snob: How did you become involved with Never Have I Ever?

Kabir Akhtar: I read the announcement about the show last summer, and as a first-generation Indian-American (and former teenager), I got very excited to learn about a show that would be telling a story I am very familiar with personally. I told my agent and manager that I was dying to work on it, and they waved their magic wands and connected the dots.

SS: You’ve spoken about the editing process making you a better director. Could you give us some insight into how the two aspects fuel each other?

KA: I often say that directing is the “shopping for ingredients” phase and editing is the actual “cooking dinner” phase. I was an editor for 20 years, and got a lot of practice cooking; sometimes for amazing ingredient-shoppers (I learned so much from these directors), and sometimes for people who brought back chocolate and onions and nothing else (I also learned a lot from these directors).

So, me being on set and knowing what shots and performances we’ll need in post (and which ones we won’t) saves time and money, and it keeps the actors and the crew from wearing out. When I start shooting a scene, it’s usually already cut a few different ways in my head; I can’t imagine directing without a solid understanding of post-production. Editing is the most important part of the process. (Also, for the record I’m a terrible cook.)

SS: Never Have I Ever is one of the rare shows to exclusively explore the life of an Indian-American teenager. Did you feel a kinship to the project because of your shared heritage with the protagonist? How did it inform your direction for the show?

KA: I love that it’s a show about being an outsider. High school is challenging enough, trying to figure out who you are and how to act, etc. First-generation kids have it even rougher; on top of the normal difficulties, you look different than everyone and the food at your house is indescribable to friends.

The writers did a great job capturing that experience, and I tried to make sure the episodes I directed featured performances that conveyed the sense of loneliness in a relatable yet funny way.

Never Have I Ever
LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 10: Editor Kabir Akhtar attends the 2016 Creative Arts Emmy Awards Press Room Day 1 at the Microsoft Theater on September 10, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images) /

SS: Could you share some of your favorite on-set moments from directing Never Have I Ever?

KA: I directed two episodes in the middle (#5 and #6), which interconnect in a really fun way. A real highlight was shooting a scene on the Universal backlot, right next to the Back to the Future courthouse.

When we broke for lunch that day, there were tables set up nearby, but I told the kids in the cast we had to go eat on the courthouse steps because who knows when we’d ever get the chance again. A few of those tourist trams drove past as we ate; pretty sure we ended up in some tourists’ photos.

SS: Where do you think representation for Indian-Americans in onscreen properties is heading? What do you think needs to be improved?

KA: Things have really changed since I was growing up in the 80s. Back then, the only brown people on TV were the zany next-door neighbor or the shop clerk, who were never very smart and who always had accents.

After that, brown people only got cast as terrorists. But now there’s a brown American on basically every show, and finally, in this case, there’s a show that’s actually about a brown family. In another show I recently directed, I got to cast a brown actor as a flight attendant, and I was thrilled we got to show a brown person on an airplane who wasn’t a bad guy.

The best part was that nobody questioned it, which means people’s perceptions of brown people are changing from “exotic foreigners” to “regular people.” (Also, I’m from Philly so I literally have no experience being an exotic foreigner.)

SS: You’ve directed shows that have heavy musical elements, and others that have none. Can you share how these two genres affect your approach to directing and editing?

KA: Directing always involves a lot of planning and visualizing, maybe more in some ways for musical numbers. But while music video work frees you up to innovate farther outside the box than non-musical scenes, it also comes with higher expectations and scrutiny.

When I’m planning to shoot scenes, I’m always thinking about what story we’re telling and how our shot selection and timing and a hundred other elements are going to serve the story. With musical numbers, it’s important to remember that while cool shots and fast cutting can be fun, they can also distract from the story you’re trying to tell.

A successful musical scene has to include the little character moments that make it fun to experience as a viewer. It’s all about balance.

SS: Do you have any dream projects you would love to work on?

KA: I’ve always been a sci-fi fan, so if Chris Chibnall ever wants an American director for Doctor Who, I’ll raise my hand as high as possible. The same goes for anything in the Star Wars or Star Trek universes. Lately, I’m loving AMC’s Dispatches from Elsewhere (again being from Philly). The best part of my job is the nonstop collaboration; I’d be incredibly excited to be a part of any of those teams.

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Never Have I Ever begins streaming on Netflix on April 27.