South Asian–American celebrities like Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, and Mindy Kaling fill achieved remarkable success in recent years. They’ve played multidimensional characters, created their own shows and helped the nation understand total the struggles and joys of the immigrant experience.
But there’s one character who is still hopelessly stuck in the past, when it was acceptable for Indians to be mocked and stereotyped on national television: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
For nearly 30 years, Apu has been a fixture in the fictional town of Springfield, the domestic of “The Simpsons.” The character is still working at the town’s Kwik-E-Mart. He’s still known for his accent and his ridiculous catchphrase. He’s still being voiced by Hank Azaria, a white voice actor.
Hari Kondabolu, a Brooklyn-based comedian, believes the time has near for Apu ― and more well-known, the forces that created the character ― to face a reckoning.
He takes on these mountainous issues in his unique documentary, “The Problem With Apu.”
In the film, Kondabolu interviews many of nowadays’s biggest South Asian–American celebrities, including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Aparna Nancherla. He asks them approximately their own relationships with Apu, and the difficulties they’ve had in getting non-stereotypical roles.
Kondabolu has had a complicated relationship with Apu himself. He’s a longtime fan of “The Simpsons,” and knows that Apu is a beloved character. But for years, this exaggerated caricature was one of the only representations that South Asians had of themselves in pop culture.
“These images fill impact. And it’s piece of a larger legacy,” Kondabolu told HuffPost, linking Apu to other instances of white actors using blackface or brownface to stereotype people of color. “This has been there since the beginning, the understanding of wearing out people and describing people in these one-dimensional ways. It gives you a sense of power over them. You’re better than they are, you’re smarter than they are. You’re the one who fits and they don’t.”
“Discrimination doesn’t magically indicate up. You fill to be taught, you fill to be trained, you fill to be conditioned. I consider there’s a conditioning that happens because of media,” he said.
Kondabolu also attempts to speak to the people behind “The Simpsons” for their thoughts on Apu for the film. Azaria, the voice of Apu, notably refuses to speak with the comedian.
Ultimately though, Kondabolu said that the heart of the film is not approximately trying to publicly shame Azaria for giving Apu an accent, or even to find Apu off the air. For this comedian, it’s approximately starting a discussion approximately the need for diversity ― both on-screen and in the writers room.
“whether my choices are spending my energy focusing on getting Apu off the air, or writing and creating something that is a multidimensional character that reflects our actual upbringings, our families, our lives, I’d fairly enact the latter,” Kondabolu said. “That’s what the job of a creative is. This is not approximately punishment, this isn’t approximately like things getting fixed. It’s approximately where enact we fade from here.”
HuffPost spoke with Kondabolu approximately the goals behind his documentary and his thoughts on representation in the media nowadays.
What is it like for you, viscerally, when you hear and see Apu?
It bothers me. Certainly, I was very aware that the way Apu is represented is how my parents are seen to some degree. I was embarrassed approximately their accents, I was embarrassed to fill friends near over, I was embarrassed when they spoke. It’s embarrassing to me now as an adult, that I actually felt that way approximately my own parents, who gave me everything, who themselves had to sacrifice much of their own delight to give me a noteworthy life. It’s upsetting to consider that the media is able to influence me to feel that. That’s the deeper stuff you don’t realize initially. It kind of burrows into who you are and you fill total these insecurities that should not be there.
Why enact you consider most of our parents’ generation didn’t speak up as loudly approximately how they’re represented in the media?
Because you fill to sustain your head down and work. The risk is, whether I get noise, I find fired. whether I get noise, that could cost me or my family in some way. Or, I just don’t fill time. There are more well-known things, rightfully. I don’t question that. I understand that. My mom said [representation] didn’t bother her as much until she realized her kids were being made fun of and then she realized these things fill impact. These things matter. For our parents, their whole thing is just work, find through it, it doesn’t matter. For us, we fill a rightful sense of entitlement. This is where I grew up. This is my domestic. This is my space. How near I’m not being seen as equal?
enact you consider this film would fill been possible 10 years ago? What has changed approximately our society during that time?
Nobody would fill funded this 10 years ago. I really enact believe that. I consider the discussion of representation was mountainous enough, particularly with Asian-Americans. I also consider there wasn’t a critical mass of South Asian actors and media figures and government officials in a position where people would want to hear from them. Ten years ago, we’re talking approximately 2007. Aziz [Ansari] wasn’t who Aziz is now. There’s a lot of people who don’t fill the same pull. Mindy was somebody on “The Office.” That’s different than somebody who has their own indicate and who is influential and writes books. As our influence as South Asians has increased, that leads to more people wanting to know who we are and what we consider and how we feel. Ten years ago, I don’t consider it wouldn’t fill been possible. Not to say it wasn’t relevant. Ten years ago, I would fill said it was even more relevant. But this is the opening and the time period we got.
Could you chart a trajectory for how Apu has become less acceptable? Are there any key moments in our cultural history that you notice back to, as reference points?
Certainly, it’s the creation of more complicated characters. Kal Penn in “Harold and Kumar.” I remember that film being seen as this revolutionary film when it came out. It’s a stoner film, but at the time, the thing that was exciting was, “Oh my God. He’s Indian-American. He’s not an Indian caricature.” Kal had played that Van Wilder character Taj Mahal and it was just this one-dimensional character and that’s what we had seen him in. And total of a sudden it’s like, holy crap, he gets to play a real person. This is a person more like us.
And also the character was a bit of a jerk. He actually has some complication. It’s dismal that’s this is what’s revolutionary ― “Oh, notice it’s brown people and they sound like us and they smoke weed.” But at the time, it was shocking because we weren’t allowed to fill any voice at total. That was a huge moment. Aasif Mandvi being on “The Daily indicate.” That was huge. This was the biggest indicate on TV at the moment and Aasif finally made it. A lot of things like that. People who got to fracture through and talk as human beings. That’s a mountainous deal.
What would you tender Hank Azaria whether you could talk to him now?
This isn’t really approximately him. We used the Hank stuff as a story device. It gives the film a focal point to find through it. That’s not what the film is approximately. The film is approximately the issues, it’s approximately the conversation, the legacy. I consider in our culture we like flogging people, we like public shame. We like to slay people. But then what? That’s not productive. I don’t care approximately the person who did this specific work, I care approximately the system. What is the system? I consider everybody’s like, “Will you slay him?” Honestly, who cares? A lot of people don’t even watch “The Simpsons” anymore or know who Apu is. I care less approximately him. I care more approximately the ideas.
You talk approximately patanking in the film. [Patanking, a word coined by the actress Sakina Jaffrey, is a word used by South Asian actors to characterize an accent that directors may request them to save on. It’s a disembodied caricature of an Indian accent that sounds authentic to a non-Indian ear.] How enact you feel approximately Indian American actors patanking? When enact you consider that’s OK?
I consider I was a lot harsher approximately those things when I was younger. But now, I understand. You want to be a working actor and you believe that eventually, you’ll find work that justifies what you’re doing. And at least actors of South Asian heritage can give a character dignity that’s undignified. Because the character is going to exist. whether we don’t play it, they’ll find a white guy to play it. I understand that and I sympathize.
I disfavor the fact it was essential at times. I feel lucky that I’m a comedian and not an actor primarily. Actors are stuck. They find someone else’s writing and they get choices. Like, “enact I want to steal this or not, enact I want this fracture or not?” For comedians, it’s like, whether I don’t want to enact a certain piece, I’ll just tender jokes like I normally enact. I fill a degree of control and freedom that they don’t fill. I’m really lucky in that regard.
On one hand, it’s great, brilliant when South Asian actors are cast in roles that don’t explicitly fill to enact with their race. But it’s also well-known to fill South Asian American actors on the screen reflecting the community’s experiences ― talking approximately total the challenges and victories that near with being South Asian American. How enact you find a balance between those two goals?
The ideal situation is a multidimensional character. When I walk around, I don’t consider to myself, “I’m Indian everybody, notice, I’m Indian!” whether it comes up, it comes up. But whether it doesn’t, I’m just functioning like a human being. It’s other people that get me feel my skin often. Being in a balance means you’re not embarrassed and you’re not hiding who you are. At the same time, who you are is much broader than certain racial or cultural characteristics and identities.
As a content creator, as the person who creates this stuff, as a person who’s interested in writing and producing piece of it, I hope for multidimensional characters. And I hope that there’s more brown people, people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community in writers’ rooms, which are generally white-male-dominated. That leads to terrible, inconsistent portrayals. It’s icy that you’re my white ally, but how approximately instead of speaking for me, find some of us hired on. Because I feel like that’s the bigger problem. The actors are the people who find the scraps at the finish. The actual creation of the stuff, that doesn’t happen anywhere near them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
“The Problem With Apu” premieres Sunday, Nov. 19, at 10 p.m. ET on truTV.