'The Problem with Apu' airs this weekend
A new 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.
Set to premiere this weekend on November 19 on truTV, The Problem With Apu follows comedian and Simpsons‘ fan 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?”
He 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.”
Speaking of the stereotypical traits that Apu has been loaded with, Kondabolu said: “He’s defined almost entirely by his job. But he also happens to have eight kids, a joke about India having so many people, and he has an arranged marriage via this weird matchmaking system that’s almost like football draft picks.
“And even though some may defend Apu with ‘Well, he’s a small business owner, and he’s a key part of the community and he’s loved,’ he’s still so limiting, because he’s never grown. I mean, some Simpsons characters have changed – some have died, Flanders became a widow. But the only Indian in town has always been a convenience store owner.”
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.”
Elaborating on Apu being voiced by a white actor, Kondabolu told NBC: “To imagine a white dude doing that voice, that was a torment. It was like bullying from behind the screen.”
In a clip from the documentary, Azaria himself that’s Apu’s voice and manner may be considered offensive.
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“Right away, they were like, ‘Can you do an Indian voice and how offensive can you make it?’” he said of early auditions for the part. “I was like: ‘It’s not tremendously accurate, it’s a little stereotyped,’ and they were like: ‘Nah, that’s alright!’”
Responding to critics at the trailer’s conclusion, Kondabolu added: “I realise some of you think I’m some annoying, PC, social justice warrior that’s very sensitive and you’re probably thinking ‘come on snow flake, let it go’. Well I have let it go – for 28 years.”