This article originally appeared in the College of Letters and Science Magazine.
By Jeffrey Day
After Richa Shukla Moorjani (B.A., communication, ’11) switched her major from theatre to communication, she accepted that she wouldn’t have a career as a performer. Then, in her senior year at UC Davis, she took an acting class that put her back on a path that led to a major role on a hit television series.
“Taking that class made me realize acting was what I really wanted to do,” said Moorjani.
Moorjani co-stars in the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” which premiered in 2020 and was co-created by Mindy Kaling. The series centers on Sherman Oaks, California, high school student Devi, who is dealing with the usual teen anxieties while struggling with her Indian American identity and her father’s death. Moorjani plays Devi’s cousin Kamala from India who is living with Devi and her mother while earning her doctorate at CalPoly. During the first season, the relationship between the two starts testily as Devi resents Kamala’s beauty, brilliance and adherence to family and cultural expectations. It evolves as Devi learns more about Kamala’s own struggles including her family’s expectations that she’s enter into an arranged marriage.
The series has been widely praised for breaking down stereotypes both inside and outside the South Asian community about mental health, sex, and its portrayal of an Indian culture with strong women and caring, warm men. Netflix has renewed “Never Have I Ever” for a second season.
Performing, along with a certain level of practicality, runs in Moorjani’s family who live in Saratoga in Silicon Valley. Her father was an engineer at tech companies and her mother a mental health therapist, but they met through her father’s Bollywood music band. Moorjani began taking dance lessons when she was 5. At UC Davis, she was involved with dance groups as a performer and choreographer.
“Because my parents are artists, they always encouraged me,” she said. “They’ve always been supportive, but they did have practical concerns. I always tell them, ‘It’s your fault I’ve pursued this.’”
After graduation from UC Davis, Moorjani moved to Los Angeles, landing television roles on “NCIS” and “9-1-1,” and, most importantly, Kaling’s “The Mindy Project.” Even so, she had to audition alongside thousands of others for the role of Kamala.
Moorjani said she relates to the emotional struggles of both Devi and Kamala in “Never Have I Ever,” but unlike Devi, she has never been conflicted about her Indian identity. She grew up in a household rich in Indian culture and involved in the Indian American community of Silicon Valley gathering, festivals and holiday, and where she had other Indian friends. That doesn’t mean everything was always easy.
“At the end of the day, we still live in America and are still a minority,” she said. “Even trying out for high school theater, I felt sometimes I didn’t get roles because of the color of my skin.”
Being in “Never Have I Ever,” Moorjani said she feels she’s part of something that will make the world better for young Indian Americans.
“When I was growing up, no one who looked like me was on TV,” she said. “What’s great about the show is it is about an Indian American family, but the themes are universal. It’s great to be part of something that has touched so many hearts.”
— Jeffrey Day is a content strategist in the College of Letters and Science