For plenty of Americans, Apu, the Indian immigrant owner of the Kwik-E-Mart, is just another hilarious and iconic character from The Simpsons. For South Asian Americans, however, Apu is a bit more complicated—somewhere between an uncomfortable but amusing character and the bane of our existence.
Hari Kondabolu’s new documentary The Problem with Apu—which aired on truTV this past weekend and is now available on multiple streaming platforms—seeks to unpack the complexities of the character, delve into the racism at its core, and examine Apu’s lasting impact on South Asian representation in the entertainment industry.
In the film, Kondabolu—a comedian, actor, and co-host of the podcast Politically Re-Active—wrestles with the beloved character he grew up with as a fan of the Simpsons. He interviews an array of South Asian American actors and comedians like Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aparna Nancherla, and Hasan Minhaj, who reflect both on Apu as a racist caricature of their own culture as well as the impact he had on their own careers. We also hear from former Simpsons writer Dana Gould as well as Whoopi Goldberg, who talks about Apu in the context of America’s history of blackface comedy.
But throughout the film, Kondabolu’s white whale is Hank Azaria himself, the actor who provides the voice of Apu in a kind of animated brownface and who declined Kondabolu’s repeated requests for an interview. His refusal to reflect on his role as a white person responsible for shaping one of the most famous Indian characters in American pop culture raises interesting questions about who gets to control our popular racial narratives (hint: probably not those who are subjected to racist caricatures).
But what makes The Problem With Apu a truly pertinent and urgent documentary is its exploration of South Asian representation in media at a moment when cultural dynamics are shifting and more South Asians are in positions of power. “You can say something is funny because it’s true because that’s the only thing that’s presented, so it seems to be true,” Kondabolu told me. “When you start offering counter-examples with more complexity, it’s not true anymore. People don’t buy it because they know it’s not true anymore.”
I spoke with Kondabolu over the phone last week about Apu, South Asian representation, and how South Asian people have already contorted themselves to fit into white culture thanks to colonialism, so WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM US?
Note: this interview has been condensed and edited.
Apu has been around for decades, and your film is based on a segment you did for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell in 2012 about Apu, but the character and the racism is still so relevant. What is it like having this discussion that you’ve had over and over again but it still being so pertinent, if not more so today?
Well, it’s weird. The points weren’t new for me, but for a lot of people, these are not things they think about. And talking about Satyajit Ray [the director of the Apu Trilogy, three seminal Indian films which inspired the name of Springfield’s Apu] and the history of that name and that incredible director is certainly something people don’t generally think about when they think of Apu. There’s a gap that needs to be filled. And I wanted to make this not only about a cartoon character and about my particular community, even though that’s the focus of this documentary. I wanted it to be a template to talk about the larger issues of representation.
Why has this one caricature of a goofy Indian man stuck for so long in our history of pop culture?
Well specifically Apu stuck because it’s been 30 years, and they created this character in a much different context, and they’re almost stuck with certain aspects of this character. Even if they developed a more interesting plot, [Apu] still going to be based on a faulty foundation of a caricature. You can’t do much after that.
I think [it’s also because], you know, it’s transgressive. The idea of being racist is, “Oh I can’t believe they’re doing that.” It’s the shock of it. People have their prejudices, and their racism activates when somebody else says it in a way that’s very clever or represents it in a way that’s clear. In the film we talk about how [Apu’s famous line] “Thank you, come again” has only been said eight times during the course of the show, but that keeps getting repeated as the insult.
For something that’s only been said eight times in, how many years, 28 years? There’s something about that that resonates, that connects with people’s own racism of, “Yes this is what they’re like. This is the way they talk, that’s the perfect example of what they are.” These things survive. It feeds off an ugly part of ourselves.
One of my favorite ideas you tackle in the film is the idea of how something can be funny and wrong and those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, even if they’re geared towards white people and even if you’re the butt of the joke. Are there other examples of South Asian characters that were racist but that you loved anyway because they were some form of representation?
Apu is that character for me. I think he’s a good funny character while also, like I said, being built on a faulty foundation. You can enjoy it. When I see Apu, I deal with the accent, I enjoy it until there’s a joke in there that’s so over the top and stupid and one dimensional that it takes me out of the show because it reminds me that this wasn’t written for me. It was written by a white writer looking at my community and making a judgment about my community. That’s when you feel it the most.
I don’t think it’s just that it’s easier for white people. I think it’s all of us. I think we’ve all laughed at things that afterwards you’re like, “Why did I laugh at that?”
Comedy is interesting because there’s a way you can construct jokes that will make people laugh regardless of what things are that are in the joke. Something about a voice that’s used. A way something is delivered. A pattern. And a good comedian knows how to capitalize on this. You get some laughs based on expectation, based on delivery, based on voice. That’s the skill of it.
Let’s say you consider that [to be] superpowers: are you using them for good or evil? That’s how I look at it. I think we have all laughed at things that we later regret laughing at. And we wonder why did we laugh at that?
On that note of expectation in comedy, do you think we’re approaching a place where the expectations of what is funny as it pertains to race is changing?
I think so, and I think also it’s because of the more depictions you have of a group.
Early in the film [a heckler in the audience] says “Thank you come again,” [to me, during a standup show], right? And it was weird both because of how racist it was but also because how old it is. I’m like, “You made a Simpsons joke? You have some Clinton jokes you want to tell me too from ’96?” It’s old, and it feels old. Because now you’re in this era with Aziz and Mindy Kaling, and all these other depictions, why are you going back there?
You can say something is funny because it’s true because that’s the only thing that’s presented, so it seems to be true. When you start offering counter-examples with more complexity, it’s not true anymore. People don’t buy it because they know it’s not true anymore.
There is such a huge gap between what Americans perceive to be South Asian and what the South Asian experience is. Like, maybe they eat curry, but more often than not, they’re eating a British abomination of South Asian cuisine, or they see Apu and make so many assumptions based on a white man’s character. What as audience members can we do to close that gap between the imaginary South Asian and the real ones?
I think viewers, we are trained to empathize and to humanize white people. As a person of color, if I was to watch something, and I was like, “Oh there’s white people in this? I’m not interested,” then I wouldn’t have been able to watch anything growing up. Fundamentally you have to be able to be like, this is not my family, this isn’t my exact experience, but I’m also a human being, I’m also a teenager, I can generally understand these feelings.
You have to make the other person a human, and I feel like whenever I hear people say, “Oh, there’s person of color in this lead, this doesn’t make sense to me, why is that person playing that part,” or “This is a black movie because there’s black actors,” it upsets me because it means you can’t see a shared humanity and a shared bunch of experiences. You have to train yourself into watching a broader range of things and finding the common humanity that people of color often were forced to find.
As a white audience member, watch as many different things as possible. You’re in an era now where you can. Aziz’s show [Master of None] to me is groundbreaking also because of the friendships between different races. It’s a much more natural kind of thing. It’s not something that’s concocted in a way if it was written by outsiders about our perspectives.
At the end of the day, it’s inevitable. This industry is about what’s new and fresh and will make money, and it’s like well, you’ve never heard our perspectives before, and everything we say is new to you and exciting, so this is the time. And it’s not like a handful of networks, there’s so many different platforms that everybody just wants a piece and looks for a niche in the demographics. So it’s a good era because of that. It’s not generosity or good will. People figured out in this time we can make some money.
And also, even with the South Asian representation, how about South Asian women? This was a good year for South Asian men, I guess, but what about South Asian women? How about the LGBTQ community? For South Asian men and their angst, we did pretty well. But what about like everyone else? That’s not really shown. We have Mindy.
The way South Asians have been portrayed historically in western media is so gendered. Why aren’t there more South Asian women other than Mindy?
Oh, it’s sexism.
It’s sexism times racism. It slows everything down even more so. That’s how good Mindy Kaling is, by the way. You have to think about that. That’s how good she is, where a woman of color in this industry, who is South Asian and dark skinned—let’s not forget that she’s a dark skinned woman—made it here. That is a testament to how good she is. And I’ll tell you there’s a bunch of women who are deserving of the opportunity, and not just in my community, but if we’re talking about the South Asian community, our identity is much broader and we have the people who can share that.
I don’t think it’s fair that everybody has to be Mindy Kaling good to get their voice heard. That’s the unfair thing. People who are good solid performers, we have to be great in order to get in. That’s not fair. White mediocrity is somehow acceptable, but we can’t be mediocre, if we want a chance.
When The Mindy Project first came out, there was definitely a lot of pressure for her to portray the experience for every South Asian American out there.
Which is totally unfair.
Do you think that pressure to represent everyone will alleviate with more South Asian creators gaining access to bigger platforms?
I don’t think it has yet, but I hope it will. I understand this feeling of, “How come you see them all with white partners and white love interests?” I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I know that in my experience, if I were to make a show, it would be different because I have dated South Asian women, I’ve dated a broad range of women of color, I have dated white people. I have those experiences. I don’t know their experiences. If they can’t write genuinely, why would they do it? That’s not fair. If they don’t know that why would they write it? If you’re going to make a judgment about them as people, I don’t know what to say, but as creators, you write what you know. And this is their authentic voice. I know for me, it’s a whole different set of angsts. It’s a different set of things that are frustrating.
And again, there’s a thing where, you need a white person in it otherwise it’s not going to be relatable, but I think it’s also their experience. I’ve heard of other situations where two people of color were written in, and people said, well one of them has to be white if people are going to see this. And I’m hoping we’re past that time, or we’re getting past it. Because by doing that you have eliminated a whole range of storylines. If it’s a black woman and a South Asian man, it’s a whole set of storylines, a whole different set of conflicts, a whole different set of jokes. There’s this stupid hangup about, well there’s no white person in it. You’ve just eliminated an interesting show that no one has seen before.
It’s kind of incredible how much whiteness is inserted into stories and becomes the center of them.
It’s annoying because we all grew up here, we all had to find different ways of fitting in, and we all speak English. Like, what more do you want? You already won! Colonialism did the trick! We eat the food here, we’re calling things curry that are made up British things, we’re altering our names, we’re mispronouncing our own names! You won, you absolutely won, what else do you want from us?