He owns a convenience store, is a devoted Hindu and is arguably the most well-known Indian character on television. For decades, The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was a character South Asians could relate to: a hardworking immigrant trying to navigate a better life in North America.
But there are also parts of his character — and the Indian culture — that have been turned into racist stereotypes, filmmaker and comedian Hari Kondabolu argues. Apu, who is voiced by Hank Azaria, who is white, was prompted after creators of the long-running series asked him how offensive he could make an Indian accent, NPR reports.
The result? The Apu we know today is for some Americans, Kondabolu argues, the only representation of what it was like to be Indian for a long period of time.
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In response to his feelings on Apu, Kondabolu released the documentary The Problem with Apu in November 2017 to address the issue of the show’s racist stereotyping. Although he loves the show, he interviews actors and comedians like Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Aparna Nancherla on what it was like watching Apu as a South Asian.
Over the weekend, The Simpsons responded to some of Kondabolu’s accusations of Apu being a stereotype. In the clip from No Good Read Goes Unpunished, Lisa and Marge indirectly tackle the issue by discussing a book that had been altered to be less offensive in 2018.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Lisa notes. “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge added. “If at all,” Lisa said. Next to Lisa was a framed photo of Apu signed, “Don’t have a cow, man,” a popular phrase used by Bart.
On Monday Kondabolu took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the show’s response.
“Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad,” he wrote on Twitter.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu attends The Problem With Apu DOC NYC screening and reception. Photo by Getty Images.
“In The Problem with Apu, I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”
“Congratulations to The Simpsons for being talked about & being seen as relevant again,” he later added.
Parle Patel, a U.K.-based YouTuber and comedian, grew up watching The Simpsons and never found it offensive. Patel, 27, tells Global News that growing up in the 1990s, it was “nice” to finally have a brown character on an American television show.
“Anyone watching that show with some grip on reality knows it was about satire, politics and stereotypes [of all] characters,” he says. “[I] didn’t get offended at everything — not saying you shouldn’t be — but I wouldn’t classify Apu [the character] as racist stereotyping.”
Patel says the base of the show was created to poke fun at exaggerated stereotypes of all races and cultures. He argues the show’s protagonist, Homer, is the stereotype of a lazy American white man who loves beer. “It was written around typical, middle class American families and a typical sort of Indian character.”
He adds while there were moments throughout the series when he questioned some of the stereotypes portrayed by Apu, some of it was relatable to his own life as an Indian.
Patel spent a part of his life watching The Simpsons in Australia and says for him, he was never bullied or targeted with Apu jokes. And while critics of Apu like Kondabolu don’t believe the character should be killed off, he argues Apu should evolve into something more rounded in 2018.
Patel agrees, adding in comedy, change is necessary as demographics of audiences grow — especially more South Asians ones.
“There is still a big misunderstanding of the South Asian culture among North Americans.”
Yasmin Jiwani, a professor of communication studies at Concordia University, says critiquing a character like Apu means dissecting the show’s creators and what they wanted to portray to Americans in the first place.
“Any act of storytelling is an act of looking at a character and building [them] to say something,” she tells Global News. “It’s about the power to determine who makes fun of whom and how it resonates.”
She adds while many mainstream comedians like Russell Peters or Mindy Kaling have used their culture to make comedy, it’s still important to remember their representations can be reflective on the community as a whole — especially to those who don’t know what it is like to be South Asian.
After The Simpsons’ response over the weekend, Twitter users like Amul Kalia broke down why the response from the show was “bulls**t.”
“Sure, Simpson’s makes fun of all races etc., but what’s different here is that Apu was THE ONLY major representation of South Asians/Indians on TV. Unlike others,” he wrote on the social media site. “And this caricatured and offensive representation happened on one of America’s biggest TV shows… So Apu BECAME South Asian/Indian for people and that led to generations of brown kids being bullied and teased with an accent many of them had never heard before.”
Kalia, who works for a non-profit in San Franciso, tells Global News he didn’t realize who Apu was or his famous slogan, “thank you, come again,” until he moved to the U.S. from India at the age of 13.
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“It was one of the first things I heard and I didn’t understand,” he says. “Eventually I figured out this character was just a gross stereotype of what I knew to be our culture. [It was] insulting.”
He argues while the show does make fun of all cultures — whether it be Italians as members of the mob or Groundskeeper Willie as a Scotsman — people in these cultures could easily relate to other characters in pop culture.
“I don’t disagree the show exaggerated minorities in other ethnic groups, but the problem here is Apu is the only major representation.” He says that while Apu is getting attention 28 years later, the current roster of South Asians in the media have a better depiction of what it is like to be South Asian.
“South Asians [now] are humans beings and not these accents. This has an impact on how people perceive us. … This cartoon is no longer relevant.”
One of the biggest conversations around Apu is how his character was acceptable in the 1990s when he was introduced: it was OK for a white man to play an exaggerated Indian character and it was OK to poke fun at things like Hindu gods or arranged marriages. And if it were to be made today, these things would not be accepted in our current climate.
But Jiwani says even though the show was made years ago, it doesn’t mean we can’t criticize it and its characters today. She argues there was always room for criticism or feelings or discomfort — there just wasn’t a platform to address these issues.
“Now there is a mobilization [of people] with critical thought. That was happening at that time but in isolated pockets. Now you’ve got a mass who can articulate this.”
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