America is wrestling with the weight of its history on multiple fronts. Debates about Confederate monuments and the line between depiction endorsement filled the airwaves until recently, when they were replaced by the numerous Hollywood scandals revealing the full depth of the industry’s problem with sexual predation. In that vein, it seems almost absurd to make a documentary about being pissed off with a cartoon character (an absurdity that comedian Hari Kondabolu acknowledges in full), but The Problem With Apu is much more than the "political correctness/safe space” screed it’s been accused of being.
At only an hour in length, it manages to burrow into the complexities of an issue involving a historical artifact that’s still being mass-produced – The Simpsons’ lovable store clerk Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, named after Satyajit Ray's infinitely more complex Apurba Roy – before examining the roots of Apu himself, his generational effect, and even the complicity people of colour can have when it comes to racial stereotypes. It’s a quickfire, comprehensive text in the form of casual, endearing, joke-laden conversation that centers not only on The Simpsons, but one comedian’s relationship to it and to comedy in general. Like the issue of Apu himself, The Problem With Apu is complicated, and unpacking it feels vital to understanding the culture in which it exists.
Hari Kondabolu found success on W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased, going viral in 2012 with a clip discussing Indian-Americans in the media and bringing up both Apu and voice actor Hank Azaria (“a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father”), so it was only a matter of time before his consolidation on what is, admittedly, a strange and difficult topic. Apu is just a cartoon character in a show that stereotypes everyone, but as the documentary covers up front (responding to the most common criticisms of the conversation itself), he’s a cartoon character that defined an entire American generation’s understanding of Indian people since he was the only major South Asian presence on U.S. television.
Kondabolu sits down with numerous Indian American personalities, from Kal Penn – who, unlike admitted Simpsons fan Kondabolu, despises the entire series thanks to Apu alone – to Aasif Mandvi, to Sakina Jaffrey, to Aziz Ansari, to one-off Simpsons voice actor Utkarsh Ambudkar, but the full scope of why the conversation might be important comes into view amidst a roundtable with Kondabolu and comedians Aparna Nancherla, Samrat Chakrabarti, Sheetal Sheth and The Daily Show’s Hassan Minhaj. He asks them to raise their hands if they faced racism as children. They proceed to do so and he joins them. Then he asks if the racism they experienced ever used Apu as a slur or reference point. Their hands remain in the air. (This writer and Simpsons fan can attest. It happens more often than non-Indians might be aware of)
Creators cannot, in all cases, be held accountable for how their creations are appropriated, and while Hank Azaria himself never shows up in the doc despite his correspondence with Kondabolu – the numerous attempts to get him to sit down and discuss the character are a throughline in the film, though he ultimately fears being at the mercy of the edit – a Simpsons personality Kondabolu does manage to get a hold of is writer and co-executive producer Dana Gould, who came aboard the show during its thirteenth season. It’s the only interview that feels remotely confrontational. Understandably so, given that Gould has the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the show (one of the reasons Azaria didn’t wish to partake) but Kondabolu never attempts to corner him or be outright accusatory. His fiery stage persona is put aside in favour of Kondabolu the smiling documentarian who, with the help of director Michael Melamedoff, attempts to parse the complexities of an issue he was once complicit in.
Kondabolu goes as far as to reveal footage from his own acts in the ‘90s, caricatures that took advantage of his Indianness and mocked his immigrant parents (whose perspectives on Apu we get to hear in the film) until of course, the expected cultural turning point in September 2001 that was bound to come up, forcing him to pivot the needle of his writing from how his people were seen to how he wanted them to be seen. Similarly, the insights of Kondabolu’s fellow comedians (like Penn, Mandvi, Jaffrey, Russell Peters and 30 Rock’s Maulik Pancholy) delve not only into the audition and performance process of Indian Americans trying to make it in Hollywood, but the common caricatures and racist stereotypes they themselves have had to play for a multitude of reasons and how it both differs from and overlaps with the likes of Apu, the animated equivalent of brownface.
The thread of whether or not Apu constitutes a “minstrel” is explored further via none other than Whoopi Goldberg, whose perspective and extensive collection of “Negrobillia” (blatantly racist relics of advertising and white American capitalism) provides a strangely cathartic look at one way of coming to terms with the past: the idea that the people perpetuating these ugly images simply didn’t know better. The conversation on racism in America cannot come up without talking about anti-blackness, arguably its most extreme form. The differences between Apu and say, blackface cinema of the 1920s help illuminate how much better South Asians tend to have it than African Americans, but once again, their unavoidable overlap makes the conversation feel necessary regardless.
Ultimately when talking about Apu, one must ask the most complicated question of all: what do we do next? Whether or not Azaria and the folks in charge of The Simpsons have mixed feelings on the matter (they do, and Kondabolu extends them that benefit of doubt), Apu is still a character appearing in newly produced episodes. Keep him on, and you’re bringing a nearly three-decade-old racial relic into the present. Kill him off, and you’re killing the only Indian regular on the show. Bring on more Indian or Indian American characters (like the Apu’s Ambudkar-voiced nephew) and you may be able to highlight a problem, but it’s a problem that still isn’t going to go anywhere until The Simpsons ends. There are major upsides and downsides to erasing or further attempting to contextualize this strange facet of Hollywood history, but it’s also a conversation that’s so much bigger than Apu himself.
While Apu’s specter looms large over the (still limited) success of South Asians in the west – more than half the Desis you can name in western media feature in this film! – acting as both animated anchor and retroactive reference point to see how far we’ve come, the fact is, facets of the conversation being in a state of deadlock is not in itself an impediment to success. As much as The Problem With Apu is about a single character, it's about the relationship of South Asian artists in the West to Hollywood and Western comedy.
While Hank Azaria may have the luxury of deciding how and when he’s seen (one hopes he’ll be part of the discussion in some other form), the film itself is proof positive in a meta-narrative sense that while this significant element of America’s history and media culture may be in perpetual stalemate, the ongoing conversation about representation is headed in the right direction, and South Asians now have more power than ever before to determine our own narratives. Where else can you get these many South Asian faces and perspectives in one American movie?
The Problem With Apu premieres tonight at DOC NYC. It airs on TruTV November 19th and will be available on all VOD platforms November 20th.