Film Forward

One Documentary Explores Why Representation And Misrepresentation On TV Matters

"There was, like, Gandhi … and then there was Apu."

FOX's animated hit The Simpsons has lasted 28 years, racked up 32 Emmys, and entertained millions of TV viewers. It has also offended countless others, however, because of a racist caricature: the Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

In a new documentary titled The Problem With Apu — currently streaming on the truTV website — Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu delves into the controversy.

"A bunch of white people made [The Simpsons] … and they thought it'd be funny to put an Indian convenience store owner in it with a thick accent and really one-dimensional," he said on the NPR podcast Code Switch.

"People really loved the character because people are racist," he quipped. 

Even worse, that thick accent comes by way of Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria, a White man. Azaria refused Kondabolu's request for an interview for this documentary.

"Through this comedic cultural exposé, Kondabolu questions how this controversial caricature was created, burrowed its way into the hearts and minds of Americans and continues to exist — intact — twenty-eight years later," truTV says.

Kondabolu, who was born to Indian immigrant parents, confronts the issue from a conflicted perspective: He loves The Simpsons but hates how Apu mocks families like his.

"That was the only representation that South Asian Americans had," he told Code Switch of his childhood memories of watching The Simpsons. "There was nothing else. There was, like, Gandhi … and then there was Apu. Growing up, there was nothing. Initially, I was so excited. Like, we have something. When you don't have anything, something is amazing. And then you realize, oh, that's not a good something to have. When you realize that, oh, my parents, I don't want them to be seen in public because they talk that way."

Kondabolu, of course, isn't the only one who felt like the butt of the joke. At one point in the film, he asks a group of young, South Asian performers if any of them were even bullied by people calling them Apu, and almost everyone in the group raises their hands.

Kal Penn, meanwhile, can't enjoy The Simpsons for this very reason. "I hate Apu. Hate Apu," the actor tells Kondabolu in the documentary. "Because of that, I dislike The Simpsons … I have never been able to divorce the two."

All these years later, The Simpsons is still exploiting Apu's identity for laughs. Kondabolu doesn't even need the show to kill off the character — he just wants better for the character.

"They could like, I don't know, let him own Kwik-E-Mart, which often happens with members of our community," he suggested in a Slate interview.

Former Simpsons producer Dana Gould did sit down with Kondabolu, and he made it clear that the comedic success of the character provides a disincentive for the writers to correct their course.

"The bottom line was always, 'What's funnier?' " Gould tells Kondabolu in the film. Later on, Gould says, "How much do you want to tear at the fabric of the show? Do you want to pull Apu, a beloved character out of the Kwik-E-Mart … just for the sake of updating that character to be less anachronistic?"

The documentary comes in the wake of a multi-university study, "Tokens on the Small Screen," that shows Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are still underrepresented on television. In fact, out of the 242 primetime shows the researchers studied, 155 had no AAPI series regulars.

Meanwhile, Kondabolu hopes his documentary puts the spotlight on issues of representation and misrepresentation — even in our most beloved cultural institutions.

"The movie is not really an attack on a TV show that I love, and it's not an attack on an individual," he told Code Switch. "This is about representation. Who gets to represent us, who gets to tell our stories. Even [on] something as magical as The Simpsons, there's still tons of insidious racism. And that's not saying that I don't love the thing. You can love something and criticize it. I think my mother would agree with that."

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

Cover photo via The Simpsons | YouTube

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