Throughout the 1990s and until the mid-2000s, the most popular representation of a brown-skinned South Asian character on American soil was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from the animated television series The Simpsons.
Apu, proprietor of the convenience store Kwik-E-Mart and never the brightest bulb in any room, was one of the popular faces on the show. The trouble is that for decades, the most memorable aspect of this character has been his unusual accent, which is courtesy voice actor Hank Azaria’s creative imagination. This accent – known as the “Apu accent” – has since gone on to haunt countless brown-skinned Americans for decades, as depicted in comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu. The film was released in November 19 2017 on the truTV network.
Kondabolu, the son of Indian immigrants, grew up in Queens, New York, when Apu was the only available representative of the South Asian community in popular culture at the time. As a result, Kondabolu has grown up being either referred to as Apu or being asked to talk like Apu to humour others, or, as in the case of those in show business, being asked to use Apu’s accent to come across as Indian enough for American audiences.
Kondabolu’s objective to make The Problem With Apu was twofold. He did not just want to talk about the problem but also get Azaria to explain himself about how he went on doing the Apu accent for almost three decades knowing that he could be accused of racism. Azaria refused to participate in Kondabolu’s documentary despite responding to the comedian’s requests by email and acknowledging his grievances as legitimate.
On January 12, Azaria, during a press tour, said that makers of The Simpsons would definitely address the issues raised by The Problem with Apu “certainly creatively within the context of the show.” The 30th season of The Simpsons will be telecast this year.
The makers of The Simpsons have attempted to do damage control in recent years. In 2016, in a season 27 episode Much Apu About Something, Apu’s Indian-American nephew Jay doesn’t just have a meaty role which is not an offensive caricature but is also voiced by a racially appropriate actor, Utkarsh Ambudkar.
In The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu asks a roomful of Indian-American actors and comedians – including Samrat Chakrabarti, Hasan Minhaj and Aparna Nancherla – to raise their hands if they were ever bullied by being called Apu. They all do. Leading Indian-American names from the entertainment industry such as Aziz Ansari, Sakina Jaffrey and Kal Penn talk about how they have always felt uncomfortable with Apu, and the larger issues of racial insensitivity and cultural misappropriation.
One of Kondabolu’s reasons for his resentment towards Apu is that the character, a first-generation immigrant, totally misrepresented the story of his parents and other first-generation South Asian immigrants in the United states of America. Their struggle to fit in and do well for themselves financially in an alien land never made it to popular culture. This has finally changed with such shows as Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None.
The 43-minute documentary also goes to the other side of the table and gets Dana Gould, who worked as the writer and executive producer of The Simpsons for eight years, to explain his version of the story. The Simpsons has always poked fun at various races and cultural stereotypes, Indian-Americans included. Gould points out that for the writers, every racial, ethnic or cultural caricature is ripe for the picking.
For example, Mr Burns, the aged villain who continues to be out of touch while making references from the ’60s and is a representation of corporate greed in America, is as much as a caricature as Apu is. Gould does admit that some accents, by virtue of sounding foreign to the white American’s ears, are funny.
While raising pertinent issues, The Problem with Apu is also consistently funny. The experiences endured by American actors of South Asian origin in showbiz range from garden-variety casual racism (such as being asked to speak in the Apu accent in auditions) to strange (one of Kal Penn’s first onscreen roles in a film is of that an exchange student in the US named Taj Mahal).
Twenty-nine years after The Simpsons was first aired on television, what difference is Kondabolu’s film going to make? Should Apu be killed off? (In one scene, Kondabolu says that if that were to happen, he would be slightly upset because a popular Indian-American character would be written off after so long).
Or has Kondabolu made the film just to get Azaria to apologise? According to The Simpsons creator Mike Reiss, Apu’s character was initially written as a store clerk, and it was Azaria who said his first line of dialogue in the Apu accent during a line reading session. Since then, the accent remained, and so did Apu. Azaria has continued to pull an Apu routine at public events to get quick laughs from the audience. Perhaps the 30th season of The Simpsons will make amends.