Comedian Hari Kondabolu, a fan of The Simpsons, is the creator of The Problem with Apu, a new documentary on TruTV about Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the beloved owner of Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart. In interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Simpsons writer Dana Gould, Aziz Ansari, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Sakina Jaffrey, Kal Penn and many more, Kondabolu explores the cultural ripple effect of the most visible “Indian” character on TV.
“I hate Apu,” Kal Penn says in the film. “And because of that, I hate The Simpsons.” Throughout the documentary, South Asian entertainers describe how the name Apu and the catchphrase “Thank you, come again” were used as slur against them when they were younger. Kondabolu proves that not much has changed when someone yells the catchphrase it at him during a live recording of his comedy show.
The Simpsons is the longest-running TV series in the U.S. and famously doesn’t shy away from biting satire, cultural and political commentary — but now the show is facing an internal controversy. Hari Kondabolu calls Apu Nahasapeemapetilon out for being a lazy stereotype and asks if the character qualifies as minstrelsy. Kondabolu acknowledges that every character on The Simpsons is a stereotype. He points out that The Simpsons inspired him to become a comedian and that alongside Lisa, Apu is one of the smartest characters on the show — but he also adds that Apu has haunted him for the last 28 years.
When you look up Apu’s biography, you’ll see that he graduated from Calcutta University, arrived in the U.S. via a scholarship, got a Ph.D. degree and took on the job at the Kwik-E-Mart to repay his student loan. He’s hard-working, lovable and, despite some flaws (like gambling and selling expired food), a “model minority” citizen. Kondabolu, however, argues that he “never heard anyone say they liked Apu because he exposed the idiocy and bigotry of Americans and the struggles of the average immigrant. No, it was just: I love Apu. That voice is hilarious.” The fact that Hank Azaria, Apu’s voice actor, is a white man, annoys him the most. He calls Azaria “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father” and goes on a mission to find and confront him.
Apu isn’t the only Simpsons character Hank Azaria is lending his voice to. Among numerous others are Moe Szyslak, Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy and Carl Carlson. Like all Simpsons characters, Apu cracks some good jokes — but, Kondabolu says, the greatest joke will always be his accent. Azaria won three Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance (once for Apu, another time for Moe and once for a show where he voiced several characters, including Apu).
He describes himself as an "equal opportunity offender" but also acknowledged some of the criticism regarding Apu’s accent in a 2007 interview. In the documentary, he recalled an early conversation with the team of writers where they asked him, “Can you do an Indian voice and how offensive can you make it?” Azaria went on to make an impression and said, “It's not tremendously accurate. It's a little, uh, stereotype,” but, he added, that’s exactly what the writers wanted back then.
Throughout the documentary Kondabolu tries to meet up with him to discuss his problem with Apu. While Azaria didn’t agree to appear on camera, Dana Gould, one of the early writers of The Simpsons did, and he justified the choice of going for the accent with the matter of fact statement: “There are accents that, by their nature, to an American audience sound funny. Period.”
“It’s funny because it’s racist,” argues Hari Kondabolu. The fact that Azaria loosely based Apu’s character on Peter Sellers’ character Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party, adds insult to injury. The Party, a 1968 comedy classic based on a fish out of water premise, starred Sellers playing an Indian actor — in brown-face and with a broad accent — who accidentally crashes and ruins a decadent Hollywood party, because he’s not used to western ways. The comedy was extremely successful and played a big role in shaping the clichéd perception of South Asians in the U.S. today.
While Kondabolu’s documentary is focused on the U.S., “doing the Indian voice” isn’t just an American thing. The Simpsons is a worldwide hit and for audiences across the globe Azaria’s impression (and dubbed versions of his mimicry) were the first and sometimes only exposure to South Asians and their culture for a very long time.
South Asian Americans make up 1 percent, or 4 million, of the U.S. population and, before Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari popped up on the screens, Apu was their only ambassador. For many desi actors, this meant that their choice in roles was extremely limited. Having to mimic an Indian accent to make a living was so common that Sakina Jaffrey even coined a word for it: Patanking.
Aziz Ansari dedicated an entire episode of The Master of None to typecasting and the lack of interesting roles for South Asian actors who refuse to patank (“Indians on TV”, Season 1). The episode kicks off with a montage of white actors in brownface — among them also Ashton Kutcher’s absurd performance for Popchips. It then shows a young Dev (Ansari) watching the 1988 film Short Circuit 2 and getting excited when he sees that the protagonist is an Indian scientist. In an essay for The New York Times, Ansari mentions the powerful effect this film had on him as a child, and how devastated he was when he later found out that the lead character was a white actor in brownface (which is something he also talks about in The Master of None). In the episode, Dev discusses the lack of representation in Hollywood, how African Americans and LGBTQ actors have only recently reached the point where two of them could be on a show and that Asian Americans were just not there yet. A sentiment that is repeated by the producer of the series Dev auditioned for when he tells him that people would think of the series as an Indian production if they saw two desi actors on the posters.
In his essay, Ansari writes: “Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.”
Utkarsh Ambudkar, a Baltimore native born to South Asian parents, also appears in The Problem with Apu. He played his nephew Jay in the Simpsons episode “Much Apu about Something” and, like Kal Penn, hates the character because of the slurs that were used against him when he was younger. Jay is a business savvy Millennial who turns the Kwik-E-Mart into a Wholefoods type store and manages to increase the profit by 500%. He also calls his uncle a walking stereotype and points out his many flaws in an argument. It’s the first time Apu is questioned in such a way and perhaps this is also an indicator of a more critical reflection in the future.
In light of the increasingly nuanced representation of minorities, Apu seems weirdly outdated. While Hari Kondabolu’s documentary doesn’t come to a conclusion as to what should happen to Apu, it certainly raises some interesting questions and sheds light on a collective blind spot. Kondabolu doesn’t think that Apu should be killed off but he’d like to see some character development in the future, which, considering how Smithers, Ned Flanders and others evolved over the last 28 years, seems like a fair ask.
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