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The Problem with Apu: A Great Start to an Overdue Conversation

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When I first saw the trailer for Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem with Apu, I felt relieved. Someone was finally ready to talk about the racist caricature that has endured on The Simpsons for decades. Then I noticed the runtime. Clocking in at 50 minutes, the movie is about as long as the average therapy session. I can’t even solve my own problems in that amount of time; so I wondered how Kondabolu could even scratch the surface of this one, racism towards South Asians in the media. Then I reconsidered. 50 minutes was more time than anyone had ever given us to say our piece about this, and we have to start somewhere. As comedian W. Kamau Bell said at the beginning of the film, “We’re ready, take us on the journey.”

Kondabolu’s documentary focuses on the origins of this apparently “beloved” character. The titular Apu is Apu Nahasapimapatilon, or Nehasapeemapetalon, or however you spell the pseudo-Indian-sounding gibberish that the writers named him. For ten seasons, he was the owner and operator of the fictional convenience store, Kwik-e-Mart. The problem with Apu is threefold: He is a walking racist stereotype, he’s voiced by a white man putting on an accent, and for many years, he was the only popular South Asian character on network television.

The Problem with Apu is an earnest investigation of how and why this character came to be, and its lasting impact on how South Asian Americans are viewed — in entertainment, and in this country as a whole. Kondabolu chats with other South Asian Americans in entertainment — all eleven of them — about their own experiences being racially typecast throughout their careers. He talks with Dana Gould about the writers’ intentions with Apu, and whether or not they could see the problem with him. In addition, we get a broader look at the ways South Asians have been misrepresented in film and television for years. This is all peppered with glances into Kondabolu’s own experiences as an Indian-American. He takes us to Jackson Heights where he grew up and briefly interviews his parents. These moments show us what it really means to be South Asian American, and how stereotypes and caricatures can’t begin to capture it.

Content-wise, the movie is very well-balanced. We hear from South Asian American actors who are tired of being cast as “cab drive” and “IT guy,” but who also need to pay their bills. We hear from Kondabolu’s parents, both immigrants to the United States from India, who don’t seem as insulted by Apu as we might expect. Dana Gould, former Simpsons writer, gives us a glib defense of Apu, declaring that “The bottom line was always: what’s funnier?” The Problem with Apu makes it clear that racism is not a binary issue; acknowledging that, yes, Apu sucks, but it’s also a little more complicated than that.

The tone is frank and conversational. It was like watching a group of intelligent, articulate friends share their experiences with racism without getting pedantic.The dearth of female representation was a little disappointing, and I wish we had heard more from the women in the movie — especially Aparna Nancherla, another New York-based comic, who has one of the most devastatingly hilarious Twitter accounts I have ever seen. If the goal is to amplify the voices of South Asian Americans, then that has to include women as well. More screen time with Nancherla would have been great, as well as with Mallika Rao, Sakeena Jaffrey, Noureen DeWolf, and Sheetal Sheth. Yes, it’s the problem with Apu, and Apu is a man, but if the goal is to start a dialogue, then it must be an inclusive, intersectional one.

Admittedly, I was a little turned off by the flashy animations and cutesy sound effects towards the beginning of the movie. Racism in media is a serious issue, and I wanted a important documentary that took it seriously with the righteous anger that so many of us have. What I got was an incredibly well-balanced, nuanced documentary that managed to take racism seriously without taking itself too seriously. Kondabolu skillfully moves between comedy bits and social discourse, silliness and gravitas. Every time the punchy graphics and jokes started to feel excessive, he brought us right back to the realness of this issue with a “No, but seriously, guys. This is fucked up.”

Another big plus for the film is that Hari Kondabolu is pretty much the sweetest person ever. I wrote this down in my notes multiple times during the movie and thought I’d work it into this piece just as an aside. His down-to-earth nature is largely what makes The Problem with Apu so special. Therapeutic, even. I will always be the first to defend the anger of people of color. It’s necessary and drives progress. However, if you’re anything like me, the constant anger gets exhausting, and eventually you burn out. The Problem with Apu gave me a chance to engage with issues of race and media in a way that wasn’t ultimately infuriating. Again, maybe it’s that sense of relief I talked about earlier; relief that finally the issue is being addressed. Or maybe it really is Kondabolu’s sincere, comforting je-ne-sais-quois that makes him so refreshing to listen to. Whatever it is, when I watched this movie, I was able to breathe, relax, and feel understood.

Still, I don’t think The Problem with Apu was intended for me, or for a South Asian American audience in general. Kondabolu himself has described the movie as “a 101 course” for those who don’t see this kind of racial humor as a problem. In a lot of ways, The Problem with Apu is exactly what white liberals have been asking for this entire time: a person of color patiently breaking down exactly what racism is, how a particular thing is racist, and why that’s a problem.

The only piece of the puzzle that I took issue with was the suggestion that Apu’s character was no different than minstrelsy and blackface, because it’s “brown paint on a white guy’s voice.” Discussing minstrel shows and blackface gave great historical context, but it should have been left as just that: context. The systemic oppression of South Asians in America in no way compares to the systemic oppression, enslavement, and outright genocide of black people in America. I understand what Kondabolu is getting at — white people mimicking people of color for entertainment is unacceptable, and Apu is in that category. However, there has to be a way for us to express this without co-opting the narratives and struggles of black people.

Aside from this, the documentary is highly self-aware. Kondabolu talks about the ways that he, too, wasn’t perfect. He cops to making stereotype-based jokes about himself as a young comedian, because it worked and white audiences seemed to love it. “I milked it as much as I could,” he admits. “And it was awful.” This was a point in the movie where I felt like he may be talking to me; it gave me pause for thought. What are some ways that I might have “clowned myself” as a South Asian American? Is it really any better than “being clowned” by a white person? It’s a question I think any South Asian American in a creative field should ask themselves. I’m glad this movie prompted that for me.

The Problem with Apu has given us a lot to work with, and I would love to see more of this kind of work being done. South Asian Americans, I feel, are just starting to carve out our space in Western media and culture, and I’m excited to see what the space will look and feel like. This movie does its job well. It tells the audience that Apu was a mistake, and that making a mockery of South Asian Americans and calling it comedy was a mistake. When it comes to showing the world, through film and television, who we are, the South Asian American voice is the most important one. Not some white guy in a soundbooth faking an Indian accent.

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