Entertainment TV ‘He haunts me’: The problem with Apu from The Simpsons

‘He haunts me’: The problem with Apu from The Simpsons

Hari Kondabolu (centre) asked other Indian actors to raise their hands if they'd even been called Apu. Photo: YouTube
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“I’ve had a great career filled with laughter, critical acclaim – I should be happy,” declares actor and comedian Hari Kondabolu.

“But there’s still one man who haunts me: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.”

In his new documentary The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu, 35, highlights a dilemma that’s been frustrating Indian people for years – the inherent racism of one of the most successful TV shows ever, The Simpsons.

“I hate Apu,” actor Kal Penn agrees. “And because of that, I dislike The Simpsons.”

An Indian immigrant with a PhD, Apu – voiced by Hank Azaria – runs the local convenience store, Kwik-E-Mart, in the small town of Springfield and is known for his thick Indian accent and catchphrase, “Thank you, come again”.

“We were worried he might be considered an offensive stereotype,” The Simpsons writer Al Jean has previously said of creating the character.

“But then we did the first read-through and Hank said, ‘Hello Mr Homer’, with his accent, and it got such a huge laugh, we knew it had to stay.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with this character, as Kondabolu points out, is that it’s “voiced by a white guy” – Simpsons stalwart Azaria, who was asked by the show’s creators to do the most “offensive” Indian accent he could muster.

Kondabolu’s repeated attempts to get Azaria to appear in the documentary were fruitless, with the voice actor saying he was concerned with the “neutrality” of the interview.

In the trailer for the documentary, which airs on US television on Sunday, Kondabolu does raise the Apu issue with Simpsons writer and producer Dana Gould, whose main defence appears to be humour.

“There are some accents that by their nature, to white Americans, sound funny,” he tells Kondabolu.

The documentary’s major complaints are that Apu gave people permission to poke fun at Indian people and meant Indian actors in Hollywood were typecast forever more.

Many argue Apu is not the only inflammatory stereotype in the show, citing town alcoholic Barney, angry Scottish groundskeeper Willie, redneck Cletus Spuckler and Italian chef Luigi Risotto.

Even Homer Simpson, it could be argued, pokes fun at the stereotype of lazy, overweight Americans.

However, a dearth of other representations of Indians in Western culture made Apu’s character particularly problematic, the documentary argues.

The Simpsons stereotypes all races – the problem is, we didn’t have any other representation,” TV actor Utkarsh Ambudkar explains.

Not everyone is against Apu, with many Simpsons fans rallying in support of the character and calling for him to get his own spinoff out of the controversy.

Others are calling the documentary “political correctness gone mad”.

But Kondabolu’s sentiments have found plenty of support among Indian people who have long hated the character but felt unable to raise it until now.

“I’ve always hated Apu not only for how stereotypical he is. My brother’s nickname is Appu which is a sweet, endearing name and The Simpsons made a mockery of it,” one Twitter user said.

“I dearly love The Simpsons but I have to admit Apu’s accent has started to make me cringe more as I’ve got older,” another added.

As for Kondabolu, he’s prepared for the backlash from those who feel he’s being overly sensitive.

“My documentary about Apu is in line with the spirit of The Simpsons,” he contended on Twitter.

The Simpsons critiques pop culture with humour and thoughtfulness. What’s more of a Simpsons move than doing the same about The Simpsons?”

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