Apu Nahasapeemapetilon sounds like no Desi person I know.
Sure, a lot of the South Asian immigrants in my life have accents. Some of them are very distinctive, betraying evidence of their upbringing or region of origin that people outside our diaspora wouldn’t recognize. But none that I’ve ever met—no loved one, colleague or even convenience store owner—speak with the sing-song melody and lodged-in-the-throat vowels of the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor on “The Simpsons.”
Hari Kondabolu agrees. As he explained in a 2012 segment (below) from “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” “Apu” actually sounds like “a White guy doing an impression of a White guy making fun of my father.”
Kondabolu hits the truth on the nose. Throughout the popular animated series’ 29 seasons, Apu has amplified the toxic stereotype of South Asian immigrants as inherently subservient and stupid. And the man who voices that character, Hank Azaria, is White.
Azaria’s portrayal highlights a key challenge for people of color in mainstream entertainment: We rarely, if ever, get the chance to represent our reality to audiences who use characters like Apu to inform their worldview. Kondabolu carries this premise from his “Totally Biased” segment into “The Problem with Apu,” a new hour-long documentary that airs November 19 on truTV.
Kondabolu’s documentary explores how the one-dimensional Apu character, which predates the current wave of Desi-driven projects by nearly 30 years, still torments South Asian-Americans. His interviews with over a dozen Desi public personalities such as Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”), Sakina Jaffrey (“House of Cards”) and Kal Penn (“House”) point to just how many of our fellow Desis have lived with that torment throughout their upbringing. For instance, one segment compiles various stars’ personal experiences with racist harassment that referenced Apu. Here are a few telling excerpts:
“I’m driving with my dad as a little kid, and someone [honks their car horn] and goes, ‘Oh hey’—and they’re doing the Indian voice—‘Hey, I need to get another Slurpee! Can you tell me where the Kwik-E-Mart is? Thank you, come again!’ And they drive off.”—Aziz Ansari
“I remember, in seventh grade, being bullied by this guy who would speak to me with Apu’s accent, or the accent that he thought all Indians spoke with.”—Vivek Murthy, former U.S. surgeon general
“We lived next to 7-11, and there was always this sense of, ‘Oh please, don’t let it be an Indian person working behind the counter, because if it is, my friends are going to do the Apu thing.’”—Maulik Pancholy (“30 Rock”)
The animated character’s presence didn’t just affect these entertainers’ upbringings. In one segment, Kondabolu explains how the entertainment industry coerces real South Asian actors into using Apu’s exaggerated accent in hollow bit parts. Several Desi performers discuss how this stereotyping affected their own careers:
“I had a bread-and-butter role that I did for years, which was the weeping ethnic mom of potential rapists or murderers: [Impersonating character] ‘It is a mother’s duty to protect her son!’”—Sakina Jaffrey
“From 1991 to ’96 or ’97, [my roles were] all just, literally: cabbie, cabbie, cabbie, deli, deli, deli, [laughs] doctor.”—Aasif Mandvi (“Younger”)
“One of the first movies I did was called ‘Van Wilder,’ and I played an Indian exchange student. I remember, very clearly getting a phone call from my agent at the time, and she said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this audition for you, it’s supporting a lead in the movie.’ Then she goes, ‘Okay, the character’s name [pauses] is Taj Mahal.’ I hung up the phone, and she calls me back, ‘I knew you were going to do that!’ Well, yeah! I mean, I didn’t major in theater and film to play Taj Mahal! She goes, ‘Look, it’s almost impossible for me to sell you without any legitimate credits on your resume, and I know that you probably won’t want to do something like this, but I strongly encourage you to take a look at it.’”— Kal Penn
The film notes that this exaggerated portrayal, which Jaffrey defines as “patanking,” has racist roots that predate Apu. Kondabolu features part of an interview that Azaria did with the Archive of American Television in which he explains how he developed the accent. The actor cites immigrant 7-11 employees and Hrundi Bakshi, a bumbling, socially inept Indian character from the 1968 film “The Party” as inspiration. Bakshi was portrayed by Peter Sellers, a White British actor, in literal Brownface.
Desi entertainers now enjoy a much better public profile than they did in 1968, or when “The Simpsons” premiered in 1989. Years of demands for better representation by audiences of color afford Ansari, “Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj and others featured in “The Problem with Apu” some room to speak their truth.
But their success doesn’t solve the problem with Apu, who is still featured in “The Simpsons.” Kondabolu spends much of the documentary seeking accountability for the racist character. He gets the opportunity to share his critiques with “The Simpsons” producer Dana Gould, who defends the character by referencing Apu’s similarly exaggerated neighbors, such as the chronically drunk Barney and sinister Mr. Burns. Kondabolu’s repeated outreach to Azaria gets no response until he receives an email in which the actor explains that he’s too concerned about how he will be portrayed in the film to appear in it.
“That’s great that he gets to choose how he wants to be portrayed,” Kondabolu says. “So fucking ironic.”
That irony will haunt Kondabolu, me and every South Asian-American living in the quarter-century shadow of “The Simpsons” until the show either meaningfully confronts this portrayal or goes off the air. Only time will tell if Azaria and his colleagues will heed Kondabolu’s call.
“The Problem with Apu” premieres November 14 at the DOC NYC film festival before airing on truTV on November 19.