Taking aim at the Kwik-E-Mart owner, this new doc outlines ‘The Problem with Apu’
“The Simpsons is like your racist grandfather. You love your grandfather. He's been there your whole life and has taught you some valuable things,” explains Hari Kondabolu. “But he still does racist stuff regularly and if he can't change, well, maybe it's about time that he dies.”
It’s a bold joke but the construction of his new and controversial documentary The Problem with Apu already proves he has guts. The Simpsons is an institution. I, like most of its young fans, soaked up the show’s wit and impressive endless catalogue of pop culture references. In its 28th year, the show can boast that it’s the longest-running cartoon, but does that also mean that some of its elements have dated badly?
Admittedly, the show has tried to modernise by altering well-known characters like Smithers, who for decades harboured a not-so-secret love for his boss, and was outed last year. Yet Apu has never changed from little more than a stereotype. Kondabolu is an Indian-American comedian has decided to go after arguably the most famous South Asian on television from the past three decades – Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – to teach America the basics of how not to represent ethnic minorities.
We all know him from the Kwik-E-Mart, his friendly face, his sales patter, his questionable accent. He's played by Hank Azaria, the white voiceover artist who also lends his voice to Moe, Bumblebee Man, and Duffman. Azaria’s portrayal of the convenience store owner and father of eight is something that is rarely scrutinised. But for South Asians in America, he has been their most prominent media representative for decades.
He’s been used as a vehicle to explore the concept of arranged marriages, the Hindu faith and the complexities of immigration, but the lingering problems with the stereotype have lived on to torment Indian Americans like Kondabolu. He’s been called Apu; he’s been heckled at his shows with the repeated sounds of “Thank you, come again!” Now he’s on a journey to educate the masses. Here’s what he’s learnt going head-to-head with Apu.
APU IS THE EASIEST WAY TO GET PEOPLE TO TALK ABOUT SOUTH ASIAN REPRESENTATION
Hari Kondabolu: He’s the longest South Asian character on TV. I grew up in Queens, New York, I grew up in a very diverse place, I didn't feel like a minority, I didn’t feel like an outsider, until I noticed how others saw me. It didn’t matter where you were from Pakistan, Bangladesh, anywhere in South Asia – you were Apu.
The media is why ever developed a sense of otherness. There is something about me that’s mocked, the way my parents talk is something to be embarrassed about – that comes from somebody shaping you from the outside, from pop culture shaping you. In a way, The Simpsons is an entry point. We needed something that people would understand, a contemporary character. The character is a white person’s view of the community, so he is fundamentally is a caricature. That’s the issue – the faulty foundation in the character and the fact he is all we had.
PEOPLE REALLY DON’T LIKE IT WHEN YOU CRITICISE THE SIMPSONS
Hari Kondabolu: I knew that there would be a lot of press coverage, and a lot of questions, but I didn’t expect this much. It’s been very positive from those who have seen it. But people who haven’t seen the film generally hate it. They see this as a broad, ranging indictment of culture and another example of political correctness gone mad. They think I’m a snowflake. I love The Simpsons it’s just that no one's ever really criticised the show other than the fact that it's not as good as it used to be, so there’s no precedent for this.
“I didn’t feel like an outsider until I noticed how others saw me. It didn’t matter where you were from Pakistan, Bangladesh, anywhere in South Asia – you were Apu” – Hari Kondabolu
IT’S NOT ABOUT WHETHER HE CAN “TAKE A JOKE” OR NOT
Hari Kondabolu: I can take a joke but it’s been the same joke for 30 years. Can you say the same joke over and over again and still find it funny? For the longest time, the joke telling has been one-sided. I and other Indians had no opportunity to reply due to a lack of representation. My job is to be critical of things, my job is to find the funny in things, and the documentary is funny. The Simpsons critiques pop culture better than anybody else. So what's more of a Simpsons move than going after The Simpsons? The conversation I had with Dana Gould (a writer on The Simpsons who defended the show’s many exaggerated stereotypes) was telling. The difference between mocking Mr Burns and Apu is the privilege rich white men have in real life. That was heartbreaking from someone I really respect. Like wow, you see that as the same?
THERE’S NO ROOM FOR APU IN AMERICA’S CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE
Hari Kondabolu: Well, we're talking a lot about the culture that keeps us separate and I think this is part of it. The idea that we don't know each other is partly because the media has depicted each other as not the same. Apu is seen as an outsider and therefore everyone who looks like him is an outsider – the idea of immigrants being these figures that are kind of just workers and cheapskates. I wish he was written by an Indian American.
As much as the Apu character has become a pretty funny character, a little bit more rounded, he's still based on this one-dimensional image of 'the other', and I don't think that helps. The reaction to the film is very much where the country's at. Half the people watching it and sharing their informed opinions and the other half hating it but not knowing what they're talking about. We jump to hate before we actually think about what it is we hate.
THE DANGERS OF BAD REPRESENTATION
Hari Kondabolu: Think about why unarmed black men get shot by the police. Why does that happen so much? Well, what images are popping into the head of police officers, and how did those images get there? If you don't live in those communities, you don't know the communities. So the only thing that pops into your head are these one-dimensional figures from TV. In the South Asian community post-911, we saw a lot of violence, deportations and detentions. There was a sense that we weren't American. Apu is the only rebuttal we had to the (other popular television) trope of brown people as dangerous terrorists. After a terrorist attack happens people no longer see a broad range of humanity between terrorism and the harmless convenience store owner if they are never shown it.
THINGS ARE GETTING SLIGHTLY BETTER
Hari Kondabolu: This is a love letter to my community, this is me saying “we have to control our image now more than we ever have” and I was happy to include a bunch of people (Aziz Ansari, Whoopi Goldberg) all in the name of showing people who really are trying to that right now.
WHAT TO DO NEXT
Hari Kondabolu: I want people to scrutinize the images they see. I want them to be critical of recurring themes, news and everything else. White writers choose to pick these images, there aren’t enough writers of colour to choose how we come across. It is an old show, it's almost like why would you want to change it now? It's like a really fancy car with a bit of chipped paintwork, how would you fix this car? This car is cool it is still running. It’s a classic. Maybe I want to leave that how it is or just get a new car. I think I’ve taken this analogy as far I can go.
You can stream The Problem with Apu here and watch the trailer below: