When The Simpsons first aired in 1989, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was the only South Asian character to appear regularly on mainstream US TV. The owner and cashier of Springfield’s Kwik E Mart, he has eight children, a wife from an arranged marriage, a PhD in computer science and a ridiculous comedy accent. Unlike the central white characters (who are mocked but also invite empathy) Apu is almost always reduced to a cheap punchline.
The 35-year-old comedian Hari Kondabolu grew up watching The Simpsons. “Apu was the only Indian we had on TV at all so I was happy for any representation as a kid,” he told the BBC. But even then, Kondabolu had a difficult relationship with the character. “After a while, you’d watch The Simpsons on a Sunday and you’d get a sense of how you’d be made fun of at school on Monday, based on what Apu did in the latest episode,” he says. “Kids in the playground would always mimic the accent and say ‘Thank you, come again!’ or ‘Hello, Mr Homer!’”
Kondabolu is now the driving force behind a new documentary called The Problem With Apu, in which he interrogates the racist stereotyping behind Apu, and speaks to other South Asian-Americans about how the character affected their childhoods. Airing on truTV on 19 November 2017, it sees Kondabolu pick apart the different racist assumptions that play into the comedy of the character.
“He’s defined almost entirely by his job,” Kondabolu explained, also to the BBC. “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.”
One question The Problem With Apu asks is whether the animated Apu is an instance of brownface. The character is voiced by a white man, Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria, who, in a clip of old footage included in the documentary, freely admits that his impersonation is “offensive”. Of the process behind his casting as Apu, Azaria explains: “Right away, they were like, ‘Can you do an Indian voice and how offensive can you make it?’ I was like: ‘It’s not tremendously accurate, it’s a little stereotyped,’ and they were like: ‘Nah, that’s alright!’”
Kondabolu describes Azaria’s acting as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” When he asks Whoopi Goldberg whether she’d see Apu as a “minstrel”, she agrees. “He has all the qualifications.”
“Now I realise some of you think I’m some annoying PC social justice warrior,” Kondabolu says in the trailer for his new documentary. But he speaks to a range of different Hollywood figures to make his point. While Aziz Ansari’s Master of None episode “Indians on TV” used fiction to take an in-depth look at Hollywood’s problematic representation of South Asians (from stereotypical accents and white actors in brownface) Kondabolu speaks to a range of familiar faces (from The Mindy Project’s Utkarsh Ambudkar to The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi to House of Cards’ Sakina Jaffrey) to give a real sense of how deep the problem runs.
The Simpsons has a history of stereotypical portraits of minorities – and has recently made a habit of using them as evidence for its progressive credentials, claiming characters like Smithers and Apu as landmarks in representation rather than regressive and potentially offensive punchlines. But Kondabolu’s documentary – which has been covered across mainstream outlets including the New York Times – has shone a light on the racism behind the laughs.