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Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem with Apu attempts to shut down The Simpsons’ racist caricature for good

Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem with Apu attempts to shut down The Simpsons’ racist caricature for good

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Photo by David Scott Holloway / Turner Entertainment Networks

Apu from The Simpsons is a walking cartoon stereotype, but for nearly three decades he’s represented the South Asian community to Americans — a yogi with a Ph.D who’s also running the equivalent of a 7-Eleven. Stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu is fighting to unseat Apu from his central position in the American cultural psyche. Kondabolu’s debut film The Problem with Apu is a 49-minute weird hybrid of comedy, documentary, and animated boxing match. As current societal attitudes shift toward established power structures, Kondabolu and others are edging for a reassessment of once beloved characters that are actually dehumanizing caricatures.

In the same vein, shows like Fresh off the Boat and Insecure are making the lives of minorities more mundane and mainstream, brushing off anachronisms like Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles and adding fresh, strong female relationships between black women. No showrunner has singled out a specter of the past so vehemently as Kondabolu does, however. Fueled by childhood scars and anger at being wronged, the comedian targets Hank Azaria, who voices Apu and who originally made the call to give the unnamed convenience store owner an Indian accent. The accent, Kondabolu argues, encouraged The Simpsons writers to go wild and give the character every hackneyed quality they perceive an Indian man might have.

Much of The Problem with Apu is spent tracking down Azaria’s agent and trying to set up an interview to hear what the man has to say to defend himself. When a response is not immediate, Kondabolu questions a Simpsons writer instead to figure out the origins of Apu. Kondabolu approaches Apu like a biographer profiling his subject, pulling out his dark secrets that average fans would never have guessed. For instance, from the Simpsons featurette interviews, Kondabolu finds that the cartoon is named after Bengali director Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy about a boy growing up as India modernizes. “His stories are about a multi-dimensional human being who grows living through pain, tragedy, and beauty. And to then have that name be associated with the Apu of the convenience store, of course, is such a huge diminishment,” Vogue film and TV critic John Powers tells Kondabolu in the film.

The comedian lays out a compelling case for why Apu’s fan base should disavow him: He was created by a room of white men solely to mock first-generation Indian immigrants running convenience stores, an easy and voiceless target that couldn’t necessarily fight back against that representation. Apu embodies every stereotype about Indians and leans in to these stereotypes even when they contradict each other: Apu has a Ph.D, yet he’s also running a convenience store. Even his origins are blurry, lending the character a monolithic quality and a sense that the writers really didn’t care about getting his heritage right; Apu is at times Bengali, South Indian, possibly Tamil, and Kannadigas.

Despite the current trend of shows adding greater representation for minorities, Hollywood’s lack of diversity remains a persistent problem. A report last week by Color of Change, a racial justice organization, found that over 90 percent of showrunners are white, leading to more roles for minorities as “‘cardboard’ characters, and at worst, unfair, inaccurate, and dehumanizing portrayals.” The difference now compared to even a decade ago is that we have artists like Kondabolu, Jordan Peele and Aziz Ansari challenging the status quo with films and shows like Get Out and Master of None.

Even Aziz Ansari has been damaged by Apu

In The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu melds his standup-like narrations of his investigation with social commentary from South Asian American actors, bystanders, and even EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg. By drawing on so many voices, Kondabolu avoids the problem of becoming one man speaking for many people as Apu has represented a whole community. Most South Asian actors speaking in the film agree that they’ve been damaged by Apu in some way. Many are commonly asked to put on “the Apu accent,” and if they don’t comply, they would lose the job to the next willing South Asian actor. Even Ansari recalled men driving by him and his dad, shouting, “Hey, I need to get a Slurpee, can you tell me where the Kwik-E-Mart is? Thank you; come again!” The more overlapping voices Kondabolu adds to his indictment of Apu, the bigger the hole he digs for the character, and for Azaria. Azaria has only spoken publicly once about the controversy over Apu, in a 2013 Huffington Post article, where he said his only regret was that, “I didn’t have a chance to spend more time doing what I would consider a more perfected Indian dialect.” 

As the old gatekeepers in media resisting change fall one by one, Hollywood may be transforming, although we’re still dealing with frequent reminders of the past. Returning to his standup origins, Kondabolu ends his film on a punchline: “The Simpsons is like your racist grandfather. And if he can’t change, maybe it’s time for him to die. And you can just remember the good stuff about him.”

The Problem with Apu premieres on truTV on November 19th at 10PM ET/PT and will be available on VOD on November 20th.