This article first appeared as a feature in the Telegraph in November 2017.
Ever meet anyone by the name of Nahasapeemapetilon? I’m guessing not. The surname of The Simpsons’s most famous Indian character is, according to Simpsons staff writer Jeff Martin, merely a garble of Pahasadee Napetilon, one of Martin’s schoolmates. Except that it probably isn’t. Google that name, and nothing but Simpsons references comes up. On LinkedIn, there’s nary a Napetilon to be found. Did Martin misremember? Isn’t it strange that none of his classmates have either attributed the surname or claimed credit for inspiring it? Where, ethnically, is Apu from?
These aren’t questions asked by Hari Kondabolu in his new documentary The Problem with Apu. Kondabolu presents his case against Apu – an Indian-American shopkeeper with octuplets, a sing-song voice and a propensity for philandering – with the disgruntlement of a man who’s spent decades asking questions and now has answers he wants to share. When he’s not being rhetorical, he’s asking people if they knew Apu was voiced by white American Hank Azaria, and how that knowledge makes them feel. ‘That makes me a little uncomfortable, for sure,’ comes one predictable response.
Kondabolu is Malcolm X to Aziz Ansari’s Martin Luther King Jr. Ansari’s masterful Master of None episode “Indians on TV” delineates, gently but in no uncertain terms, the stereotypes Indian actors have long had to put up with. Kondabolu seizes not on structures but on a lone cartoon character from a fictitious town populated by oddballs and goofs. He ends the documentary by beating up a life-size Apu simulacrum, Mortal Kombat-style.
To a degree, Kondabolu has a point. For years, Apu was the only high-profile Indian character on TV. Kondabolu, Ansari, Kal Penn and Utkarsh Ambudkar are only a handful of the South Asian showbiz figures who grew up hearing Apu-based insults. It was near-impossible for Indian actors to escape the shopkeeper/cabbie/second-fiddle roles, many of which came with an exaggerated accent. ‘This one character created so many problems,’ says Pitch Perfect actor Ambudkar. ‘Psychologically and emotionally.’
Even the team behind The Simpsons are embarrassed enough about Apu to be shifting the blame. Producer Mike Reiss, who originally wrote the character as a nameless store clerk, says he specifically annotated the clerk’s opening dialogue with ‘NOT INDIAN’, to avoid ‘comedy cliché’. Azaria, meanwhile, paraphrases the producers: ‘Can you do an Indian accent, and how racist can you make it?’
These are all points worth raising, but Kondabolu’s documentary falls a little flat in its evidence, the equivalences it draws and the talking heads it marshals, as well as in its core argument: the significance of Apu. ‘Apu reflected how America viewed [Indians] – servile, devious and goofy,’ says Kondabolu, blithely ignoring the character’s many positive traits – his entrepreneurialism, his work ethic, his generosity, his Ph.D. But it’s difficult to blame The Simpsons, never intended to be the runaway success it became, for providing the only representation of Indian-Americans on television.
Let’s say you’re a Simpsons writer in the early ’90s, wanting to represent America’s rich ethnic tapestry. Do you ignore Indians entirely? Do you draw them as superior to the other stereotypes you’re peddling? Or do you give them both barrels like you do with the rest? Was it the job of The Simpsons to ‘show what an Indian is’ (Ambudkar’s words), or was that the job of pop culture more widely?
It’s easily arguable that the show is, and has long been, the very definition of pop culture. And yet to peg school-bully taunts and show-runners’ persistent typecasting on a single cartoon feels deeply inadequate. Such problems have always stemmed from ignorance. And Apu is used – frequently, and as only an ethnic minority can be – to expose the ignorance of so many yellow (read: white) Americans. Ironically, Kondabolu adduces some of these scenes for his argument.
‘Oh look, it is Mr Homer, my favourite customer,’ says Apu at one point. ‘Please feel free to pore over my Playdudes and tell me to go back to some country I am not actually from.’ The target of the satire here is obvious. Later, when Apu is busy ululating in pain after drinking hot coffee, his head having been innocently draped in a wet towel by Ned Flanders, and a Canadian border guard pulls a gun and says ‘Stop him, he’s expressing his faith!’ – is it Indians who are being mocked?
This is what makes The Simpsons acceptable when a show like Mind Your Language, say, is a little racist. The latter features a straight-man against whom foreigners are defined by their inability to meet certain standards. We’re asked to identify with the white, superior teacher, and laugh at his silly foreign students. But Apu’s eccentricities, which co-opt stereotypes as well as breaking them, allow him to assimilate with ease into the bizarrerie of Springfield society at large – itself a magnification of the quiddities of American suburbanites.
Certainly, Apu’s heritage is questionable, though this isn’t covered by Kondabolu. Apu’s dark skin and lengthy surname suggest a South Indian heritage, yet in “22 Short Films About Springfield” he’s ‘the Jolly Bengali’. Groening named the character after the Bengali boy who becomes a man over the course of Satyajit Ray’s totemic 1950s Apu Trilogy – itself an indication that Groening’s conception of Indians in reality was hardly based on comedic stereotypes. But the cartoon character’s composite nature should be seen in the context of other characters of murky extraction such as Mr Burns or Moe Szyslak – it’s part of the tangled DNA of a decades-long sitcom.
Kondabolu appears po-faced when he talks of Apu’s failure to represent the complex, often painful life stories of first-generation Indian immigrants. Rohitash Rao, the creator of yet-to-be-picked-up Fox pilot Rancho Cucamonga, says his dad wanted to spend time with his kids so much that he coached Rohitash’s Little League team – playing baseball by the rules of cricket. It’s strange that he and Kondabolu acknowledge the absurdity of this while not pointing out that it sounds exactly like a Simpsons subplot.
Can Apu change? If not, Kondabolu argues that it’s time for the character to ‘die’. Though his interviewees – including his own mother – absolve Azaria, Kondabolu makes no bones about his personal animus. When he receives an email from Azaria’s agent denying an interview, he is speechless. Azaria emails him later saying he’d rather not participate in the film because it would mean ‘throwing [him]self upon the mercy of [Kondabolu’s] edit’, but would be open to having a public dialogue about it in a ‘mutually acceptable’ forum. You might think that’s a reasonable response; Kondabolu would disagree. ‘That’s great that he gets to choose how he’s represented,’ he says sardonically. ‘So fucking ironic’.
Kondabolu does make some interesting points about 9/11 being a watershed moment, forcing him to transition from doing “ethnic comedy” about cabbies and shopkeepers to representing himself as he wanted to be seen. ‘I know almost every South Asian American in the media,’ he says, echoing Master of None co-creator Alan Yang’s comments from the Emmys last year. ‘And half of them are in this film.’ He’s right: Asian Americans have some way to go. But they’re getting there.