In the upcoming documentary The Problem with Apu, Brooklyn-based comic Hari Kondabolu explores what happens when a beloved cartoon character is also an offensive caricature for millions of people. The effect of the The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – voiced by Hank Azaria – was an ever-present reminder for many South Asians growing up in the United States of the lack of representation and power they held in the entertainment industry and popular media, Kondabolu says in the documentary he hosts and produced for truTV. Without other Indian characters with depth and substance in the media to challenge the stereotype, Apu’s distinct accent and best known line – “Thank you, come again” – became the basis of South Asian characters in American media for years afterwards.
The roots of the film come from a piece Kondabolu performed on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, where he discussed Indian-Americans and the media, and “publicly declared war on Apu.” Throughout the doc, Kondabolu seeks a meeting with Hank Azaria – unsuccessfully – while exploring how the character of Apu has created the basis for many portrayals of South Asians in the years since. Joining Kondabolu in the film to discuss representation in entertainment are Aasif Mandvi, Kal Penn, Hasan Minhaj and Sakina Jaffrey. Bedford + Bowery talked to Hari about his upcoming documentary, which premieres in theaters Nov. 14 at IFC Center. The following week, on Nov. 19 at 10 p.m., the documentary will be premiered on truTV.
When was the first time you saw Apu? Did you have an immediate visceral dislike of him or did that come later after you had time to reflect on the character and the accent and how much they stereotypical they were?
I first saw Apu when I was, probably, 9 or 10. It was during the first season, I think. I was a Simpsons fan; I was excited about it. The idea of having a cartoon on primetime as a kid was exciting. And seeing Apu, it actually was really great initially because it was like, “Oh my god, we went from not existing at all to being represented in some way.”
When you have nothing, you’ll settle for anything and that’s exactly the position I felt. I was excited, I felt the accent was funny and that was that – there wasn’t much thought about it. I think probably between fifth- and seventh-grade, you realized this isn’t just a cartoon character but it’s kind of being wielded as a weapon because there’s no other representation of brown people, and specifically, South Asian: we’d be called “Apu,” our parents would be mocked, I was worried about my parents talking, I was worried about their accents. That’s kind of when you started to see it was a problem. Over the course of time – especially when you’re a teenager and you’re already vulnerable and thinking about identity – you realize either nobody sees you or when they see you, they see you in this way: as a punchline, as not a full person. There’s also a sense of who has power and who doesn’t and race is a part of that. Apu certainly didn’t make my life easier.
At one point you ask, “Is it better to be clowned or to clown yourself?” I have no experience in the entertainment industry but I assume that for a young minority actor trying to break into the industry, there is probably a lot of pressure to take any role you can get. Is it immoral, in your view, for a South Asian actor or a minority actor to take a job where they are playing a one-dimensional character, and essentially allowing themselves to be stereotyped?
I think when I was younger – not even that long ago, but before I was deeper into the entertainment industry – I would have said it was straight-up a sellout move, that it shows no integrity. As I’ve gotten older, and have a deeper understanding, I realize the privilege I have as a stand-up comedian. Like, I have this dream, I want to pursue my art form and if people don’t put me in their movies or TV shows, I just keep going. That’s not my aim in life. My art form is to share blunt truth and things I find interesting and funny. I have control of that – if you don’t hire me for a job, that’s fine – I write my own scripts for me.
As an actor, if that’s something you want to pursue, if you dream of doing great work, getting great roles and you want to improve your craft and be challenged, you’re in this weird position where you’re dependent on other people. You’re dependent on studios. You’re dependent on other people giving you money and opportunities. You’re dependent on writers who often aren’t the same ethnicity as you, dictating who you are and what role you can play. I think I have much more sympathy now. There’s tons of people who have these experiences where they had to work their way through just to get a chance to play better roles. Kal [Penn] has played some great roles but he couldn’t have gotten there without the rest of the stuff because that’s where we were in terms of society. I think Aziz [Ansari] and Mindy [Kaling] are the exceptions and they got to the top because they create their content. They proved they could create their own product.
You tried to get Hank Azaria on camera but he declined and said he might be willing to speak to you in another forum after the film is released. Are you still interested in speaking with him, and if so, have you worked out a forum to do so?
I’m extremely interested in talking to him. Certainly, I would have liked to have him on camera. I think it would have been a great example of like, “Hey, you can actually as adults have differences and talk about it. You can feel upset about something and work it out. You can challenge an institution and there could be a response.” I wanted that to be part of the film. However, I think there’s still great validity in saying, “Let’s talk.” Let’s have a productive conversation as adults. Let’s actually see where we’re each at, let’s learn about each other. This wasn’t about “I want to track Hank Azaria down.” And this definitely wasn’t about trying to guilt him or make him feel bad – that wasn’t what this was about, ever.
If anything, by the end, I was kind of frustrated by the idea that, “You get to play a character and you get to choose how we get portrayed as a whole and you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable in any way. And you don’t think I come in good faith.” And that’s frustrating, because we didn’t have a choice.
At one point in the film you say, “If I don’t get Hank to retire Apu then this whole thing is a failure.” Later, you backtrack a bit and talk about the progress made in the media with South Asians having their own shows, like Mindy Kaling. Given that progress, do you think Apu’s days as character on The Simpsons are numbered?
To be perfectly blunt, I don’t really care. It’s an old character from 30 years ago and whatever’s happened, happened. The show is not nearly as influential or popular now as it was back then. In the film, I think Apu is a way into the larger discussion of representation and to talk about the context we’re in and the context we were in. I think people forget history and forget where we were not that long ago and how we got there. This is kind of a catch-up – let’s get on the same page. It’s also a way to talk about how easy it is to have racism be right under your nose and you miss it. I think that’s what this film is really about.
Certainly, I’m extremely passionate about some of this in the film because I got to drive the narrative somehow but that’s not really important to me. Whatever happens to Apu, happens to Apu. What I would like to see is an immigrant character on a show with depth, with complication – somebody who works at a convenience store or a taxi driver and getting to get their perspective. If you are interacting – especially in a big city, with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people everyday, every week, every month – you’re going to have funny stories. You’re seeing more humanity than most people see. You’re telling me that person doesn’t have an interesting life? Transported to another country in a completely different context and meeting people really quickly in this service position? That’s what I want to see. I want to see that progress.