For a movie meant to start conversations, “The Problem with Apu” follows its own advice and includes plenty of its own. In his search for answers about the origins, impact, and continued inclusion of “The Simpsons” character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Hari Kondabolu gives over much of the runtime of his new truTV documentary to his talks with South Asian performers and professionals about how Apu has affected not just their careers, but their lives.
Kondabolu’s film argues that as a character, Apu isn’t just a vehicle for promoting misguided and harmful stereotypes about South Asian people. For him, it’s a symptom of a system that never had anyone at the table to explain why the Kwik-E-Mart owner might be a caricature that would fundamentally shape understanding of the South Asian-American experience for everyone from playground bullies to well-intentioned businessmen.
This need for an honest evaluation of what Apu might represent, even for fans, is the same force that’s been an unspoken part of many South Asian performers who’ve been saddled with similar flat stereotypical characters. It’s something that particularly bothered Kondabolu after sit-down interviews with actors and comedians like Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Aparna Nancherla, and Hasan Minhaj.
“It was frustrating to see how much was put on the actor,” Kondabolu said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “They’re forced to write and they’re forced to fix something because they know their community deserves more. You have to do extra work the other actors don’t do because you’re not just representing yourself.”
One of the standout sequences of “The Problem with Apu” is a segment that first aired on TV five years ago, Kondabolu’s biggest previous public addressing of this issue. On “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” Kondabolu talked about the then-debuting “The Mindy Project” airing on the same network that continued to feature Apu in new “Simpsons” episodes. Kondabolu is quick to draw a distinction between drawing attention and calling for shame, a line that can get easily blurred elsewhere.
“At the end of the day, this isn’t supposed to be punitive. It’s supposed to be something that’s reconciliatory. Let’s figure out how we got to where we got and what we can learn from this,” Kondabolu said. “That’s what I feel like is always a good goal with things like this. I don’t need to punish somebody, this isn’t about call-out culture. I’m not calling somebody out, I want to have a discussion with somebody.”
So with a new, fresh forum in this documentary, Kondabolu sought out Apu voice actor Hank Azaria to participate. The ultimate endpoint of that journey is surprising in ways that are hard to avoid spoiling, but Kondabolu explains that he nearly had a different ending.
“We didn’t show this in the film because it was a private conversation but Hank called me, we chatted,” Kondabolu said. “When we were trying to get him, he was very nice, he told us about how much he liked my work, and how he thinks the film is very interesting. And I was a little starstruck because it’s Hank Azaria and I love ‘The Simpsons.’ He seemed hesitant to be in the film because he was worried about the edit. So he said, ‘How about we record it on ‘Fresh Air’ or ‘WTF with Marc Maron’ and find that neutral territory?’ When the full version with context is out there, I can’t screw with context. I can’t edit it in a way where he looks terrible.”
While Kondabolu eventually agreed, he says that Azaria ultimately opted out of the alternate idea.
“I said ‘yes,’ because the film is partly about accountability. It’s about accountability and growth, honesty,” Kondabolu said. “It was in his best interest to do the film because there’s enough stuff he’s said in the past and other archival things that show the history of how [Apu] happened. But him talking about it, you hope that’s firsthand, you hope that it’s honest and truthful and also I think people give you more credit when you have the guts to try. I felt like we had a chance there.”
Kondabolu explains in the film how having this now-pervasive character be a part of a show he loves is a tremendous source of internal conflict. But he explains that the process of wrestling with a troubling element of a beloved institution has become, for many people, a regular part of our changing national dialogue.
“Loving ‘The Simpsons’ is like loving America, right? So there’s certain things about it I disagree with, so I protest. It’s like the anthem thing, with [Colin] Kaepernick. I’m not saying this is equivalent to it, but I’m saying it’s that kind of public discussion that we’re having. Is it OK to criticize things we hold sacred? Isn’t that what makes us good Americans, good ‘Simpsons’ fans, thoughtful viewers, thoughtful humans, right? So I think that’s definitely a part of it,” Kondabolu said.
And as with many other areas of a changing industry structure, he explains that success for one group of people doesn’t have to come at the expense of another.
“Historically, South Asians and other minority groups have never really had a voice and all of a sudden they have a voice and people don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know what to do now that their institutions are being questioned by people who were never allowed to speak for themselves. And I think that’s something that we’re dealing with now,” Kondabolu said. “White people feel like they’re under attack because for the first time there are people of color who’re trying to be on the same standing with them. You’re not under attack, we’re just looking at you eye to eye. We haven’t had that before.”
As he does on Politically Re-Active, the podcast he co-hosts with W. Kamau Bell, Kondabolu talked about how this is an issue that doesn’t merely affect cultural representation. One segment of “The Problem with Apu” shows that “The Simpsons” is far from simply a national staple: The animated series’ 620+ episodes have become a massive international export, too. As a result, characters like Apu can deepen misunderstandings with even bigger implications than who appears on screen.
“Think about what we know of other countries. Not just people, but other countries. It’s whatever we’re told, right? When we think of Iraq, are we thinking about this incredible history of Mesopotamia? No, we think about Saddam Hussein, war, oil. It’s whatever we’re presented with, so I think the same thing is true with images,” Kondabolu said. “I think about post-9/11 a lot. Post-9/11 had a lot of brown people being beaten up by fellow Americans and I thought about why. And I realized, ‘Well, there’s two major images of brown people: One is this harmless cartoon character that’s ridiculous and the other one is of a terrorist.” So when you only have two major images, which side are you going to err on? You’re probably going to err on the side of the terrorist because you’re scared, and that’s a problem when you have limited images. We’re human beings, we think about self-preservation, we think about all of these other things and we forget each other’s humanity. To clarify, I’m not saying ‘The Simpsons’ is responsible for post-9/11 backlash, but there’s something to be said about why images matter.”
For that same reason, “The Problem with Apu” doesn’t restrict its focus to how the South Asian community is affected by limited representation. In a segment on the lingering effects and efforts to reclaim some of the damage done by minstrelsy in popular American entertainment, Kondabolu enlisted the help of Whoopi Goldberg.
“To me, it’s part of the same legacy. That’s why Whoopi was so important in the film. Talking about the history of minstrelsy and the black community, we also had a lot of images of indigenous people and East Asians. There’s a lot of it. And I think it’s important to know where this comes from,” Kondabolu said. “The black community has had it hardest in so many ways and they still do. I think that it’s important to understand that when we’re moving forward. It is part of a larger legacy of racism and representation in this country, minority representation. That was crucial to me, absolutely necessary.”
So what comes next? Kondabolu is quick to reiterate that one decision won’t magically reinvent the system, but he’s clear that simply saying “I’m sorry” won’t fix any of these problems.
“I mean, apologies are empty, right? Unless they are balanced with some kind of action, something that actually shows a change,” Kondabolu said. “It’s easy to apologize. It’s easy to make a statement. Self-reflection is great, but then self-reflection is about themselves. What about everybody else? What about the folks it’s impacted? That’s the larger discussion.”
“The Problem with Apu” premieres November 19 at 10 p.m. on truTV.