The Problem with Apu
Titled the ‘Problem with Apu’ the documentary is airing this week.
The documentary sets out to investigate the impact of The Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – and how widely he’s considered to be an offensive stereotype to people of Indian and Asian descent.
The film follows comic Hari Kondabolu as he interviews figures from the world of entertainment including Aziz Ansari, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Maulik Pancholy, Sakina Jaffrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Kal Penn to look into the problematic nature of iconic shop-owner.
“Kids in the playground would always mimic the accent and say ‘Thank you, come again!’ or ‘Hello, Mr Homer!’” Kondabolu told the BBC. “Sure, growing up in New York City everyone tries to be funny. If you grow up there you learn to make jokes and how to make comebacks, but it’s hard to counter an accent – what’s your comeback for an accent?”
The comedian continued: “The Simpsons is an important work of art that has influenced so many, including myself. Apu was the only Indian we had on TV at all so I was happy for any representation as a kid. And of course he’s funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you. It becomes so normal that you don’t even think about it. It seeps into our language to the point we don’t even question it because it seems like it’s just been that way forever.”
White actor Hank Azaria has voiced Apu since the ’90s – a portrayal which Kondabolu describes as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
Chasing the Creators
Much of the documentary – which runs about an hour in length – is devoted to tracking down Azaria for comment. It asks a lot of him that he doesn’t answer for; Azaria was ostensibly an actor in need of a role, but video clips and interview snippets inform us that he never considered the lasting, damaging effects of his Apu interpretation, and neither did producers on The Simpsons.
“There are accents that…to white Americans, sound funny, period,” Simpsons writer and co-executive producer Dana Gould explains in the film (tip: This is not an explanation). An entire generation of actors and first-generation Indian Americans at large have had to double down and erase their heritage to escape the burden of this character and what he represents.
The Problem With Apu leaves things open-ended. The Simpsons remains a seminal comedy in the history of American television, and Apu is part of that no matter what we do. It’s up to audiences to accept the complexity of this character, of his accidental but undeniable legacy and the strides representation have taken since then – and still needs to take in the future.
The Problem With Apu premieres Nov. 19 at 10 p.m. on truTV.
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