The Problem with Apu

Michael Melamedoff (director),
Lara Aqel and Miguel Drake-McLaughlin (cinematography), Rebecca Beluk and Kristen Huntley (editors), Hari Kondabolu (writer)
Hari Kondabolu, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aziz Ansari, W. Kamau Bell (cast)
November 19, 2017

The Problem with Apu is a one-hour truTV documentary that deconstructs The Simpsons caricature of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the convenience store owner who speaks in a stereotypical Indian accent, in order to open up a conversation about South Asian representation. While focusing on a single fictional character naturally has its limits, Kondabolu widens the scope by interviewing a variety of subjects — South Asian actors, journalists, and even the US Surgeon General — to show how one stereotypical depiction can have damaging effects on an entire community. What results is a documentary that feels both too brief and too long; stuffed full of info and yet leaving me wishing for more.

The Problem with Apu grew out of a 2012 skit that Kondabolu did on W. Kamau Bell’s now canceled show Totally Biased. “Apu, a cartoon character, voiced by Hank Azaria, a white guy. A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father,” Kondabolu says in the skit to raucous applause. The idea of exploring Apu further clearly stuck with Kondabolu, and The Problem with Apu expands on his brief sketch while adding a goalpost to the project: get Azaria to talk to Kondabolu about his depiction of Apu.

“Twenty-eight years later and ‘thank you, come again’ has followed me wherever I go,” Kondabolu says in the documentary, referring to the character’s trademark phrase spoken in a heavy accent. It’s an accent that Azaria admits, in a 2013 Huffpost piece, came from watching Peter Sellers in brownface in the 1968 film The Party. Of why Apu even has that accent, in the same article Azaria says The Simpsons writers asked him, “can you do an Indian accent and how offensive can you make it?” (This ends up being disputed within The Problem with Apu. Kondabolu interviews Simpsons writer Mike Reiss, who says the character wasn’t supposed to be Indian, but Azaria immediately adopted the accent when he saw in the script that the character was a convenience store owner. Huh.)

“I hate Apu,” says actor Kal Penn in the film. “And as a result I hate The Simpsons.” Even with his level of relative fame now, actor Aziz Ansari also says people still approach him and speak in the Apu accent. Actors like Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aasif Mandvi, and Hasan Minhaj speak of Apu as a kind of spectre that looms over their careers: regardless of their specific cultural background, in casting calls they are often asked to do “the accent,” and to play a convenience store owner, deli worker, or taxi driver. And then on the schoolyard, that same accent was often wielded against them by bullies looking to highlight their Otherness. Actor Maulik Navin Pancholy says he used to dread going in to 7/11s, because if the worker there was Indian, his friends would do “the voice.”

Kondabolu is first and foremost a stand-up comedian, and The Problem with Apu certainly has comedic moments — it’s a film centered on lampooning a cartoon character, after all. But there’s a lot of pain there too, as Kondabolu lays out how having Apu as the only South Asian representation on screen for years upon years has negatively impacted not only many South Asians’ psyches, but the mainstream perception of South Asians. It’s a stereotype that South Asians have fought for years to dispel, and it’s only in recent years that many of them have found three dimensional roles outside of the mold Apu forced them into.

A film focused wholly on South Asian representation is not one we get to see often, and within the hour Kondabolu does an impressive job of collecting first-hand reports, mixing up bitterness with comedy, anger with hope. The way he delivers his information is lively and visually appealing, and it’s easy to walk away from the film feeling both informed and affected. On the other hand, by the end of it I was left wishing for more — more context, more info, more historical grounding, more graphs, more expanding beyond just Apu. A South Asian historian or researcher who’s versed in the statistics of diversity in Hollywood — like the work done at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center or USC’s Annenberg School — could have provided a solid backdrop for the anecdotes, for example.

There were also parts that felt like they didn’t do much to bolster Kondabolu’s points, and with only an hour to spare, one wonders if the finally product could’ve been more streamlined. For example, later in the film there’s a segment between Kondabolu and Whoopi Goldberg that revolves around approximating brownface to minstrelsy blackface, and I wonder how necessary that was. When Asians are often accused of trying to make parallel references to the discrimination Black people face, was including Goldberg the best choice? Sure, it’s a lighthearted segment between what sounds like two close friends, but why ask Goldberg, a non South Asian person, to quantify how racist Apu actually is?

And then there’s the overarching issue of Azaria, although that’s through no fault of Kondabolu’s own. Azaria, the man who, on a whim, created a racist South Asian depiction, declines to speak to Kondabolu, an actual South Asian person — a “real life Apu,” as Kondabolu puts in. For a film that repeatedly centers a conversation with Azaria as the main goal, it’s an incredibly disappointing — although perhaps unsurprising — end. Although it’s certainly not Kondabolu’s fault that Azaria is ultimately too fragile to confront his own actions, one wonders if, in the wake of the rejection, the film could’ve been structured differently. There’s a conversation to be had about how Azaria’s accent happened because an all-white writing room found it hilarious, and indeed racist depictions in Hollywood still exist because majority white creative teams often take no issue with them. It’s a discussion about where the line between an actor’s power ends and the institution’s begins, and it’s a conversation that Kondabolu can perhaps pick up again if he ever decides to do a full length feature.

In the end, what are Azaria’s reasons for not appearing in a film that’s more or less all about him? He doesn’t want to “fall at the mercy” of Kondabolu’s edits. And that’s the whole gist of it, isn’t it? As Kondabolu points out in the documentary, to be able to choose when and how to be depicted is a mark of privilege. Hank Azaria never speaks in this film, not as himself, but in doing so he ends up saying everything we need to know. I’m not sure if The Problem with Apu has given Kondabolu the catharsis he needs, not yet. I’m certainly interested to see where he’ll take us next.