“‘The Simpsons’ is sick and this contest is crowdsourcing the cure.” That’s the pitch for producer Adi Shankar’s (“Lone Survivor,” “Dredd,” “The Grey”) spec script competition, which he is launching today in an effort to find a solution to what has become known as the show’s “Apu Problem.” The long-running character, a convenience store owner voiced by Hank Azaria, has become a controversial figure because many believe him to be an inaccurate and hurtful portrayal of Indian Americans.
“Apu is not even a stereotype, that’s what everyone is missing out on,” said Shankar, who was born in India, in an interview with IndieWire. “The stereotype of Indians is we’re doctors, we’re smart people, leaders in tech, the CEO of Microsoft, CEO of Google. We’re high achievers and we are that because to immigrate here from India there were so many restrictions literally only the best of the best and the brightest of the brightest were allowed to come over to this land of opportunity. [Apu] is an inaccurate, fabricated archetype that was created by ‘The Simpsons’ and carved into the American conscientiousness through blunt force over 30 years.”
Shankar’s contest is searching for a spec screenplay of “The Simpsons” that centers on the Apu character and — according the contest website — “in a clever way subverts him, pivots him, writes him out, or evolves him in a way that takes a creation that was the byproduct of a predominately Harvard-educated white male writers’ room and transforms it into a fresh, funny and realistic portrayal of Indians in America.” Shankar will personally take the winning script to “The Simpsons” writers’ room and Fox, urging them to turn the script into an episode (as well as hire the winning writer) for the upcoming season. If rejected, Shankar is promising that he will finance the winning script and produce it as a fan film for his Bootleg Universe.
In addition to producing big-budget action films like “Dredd” and “The Grey,” Shankar’s Bootleg Universe YouTube channel has been his outlet to produce short films that reimagine well-known franchises and characters, like James Bond, The Punisher, and most notably a 14-minute short based on the The Power Rangers — directed by Joseph Kahn, starring Katee Sackhoff and James Van Der Beek — which racked up over 11 million views in its first 24 hours online and that many believe Saban Film took its cue from in rebooting the “Power Ranger” franchise.
While rights holders, like Saban Film and MGM (James Bond) have claimed copyright infringement and had the Bootleg shorts temporarily taken down, Shankar has ultimately prevailed in each case under the umbrella of “Fair Use” — the legal principle that secures the public’s right to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism — and the argument that his shorts, beyond the recognizable actors and big budget Hollywood production value, are no different than the tens of thousands of pieces of other fan art in which the creators don’t profit from sharing online.
“With the past bootlegs it nearly got to a head legally, but the reality is the fair use of it all has always withstood,” said Shankar. “I view Project Bootleg as video street art, but also [a chance] to peak under the hood of some of these brands and really look at what they were saying. What is this show actually about? In a way, these were all love letters to these franchises.”
In addition to his work in live-action, Shankar also has roots in the animation world and is the co-showrunner of the animated Netflix series “Castlevania.” Shankar is confident that he is capable of producing an episode of “The Simpsons” that will sound and look like the Fox series, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.
Since the Apu controversy was sparked by Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary “The Problem with Apu,” which aired on TruTV, Shankar has spoken up, most notably in an open letter taking comedian Bill Maher and current “Simpsons” showrunner Al Jean to task for their arguments that the Apu character was “celebrated” and seen as “inoffensive” in the 1980s and ’90s.
“You know this accent I’m talking to you in,” said Shankar, who doesn’t speak with any form of noticeable Southeast Asian accent. “This is an accent I made up at the age of 16 when I immigrated to America by myself, two days before 9/11 happened, because I knew that Apu was a thing and I made a cosmetic change to the way I speak. I should sound closer to Kunaul Nayyar or Kumail Nanjiani, but I invented this accent. There are ripple effects through my own personal life.”
Shankar told IndieWire that it was “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening’s recent comments to USA Today — “I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended” — regarding the Apu controversy, that drove him to anger and eventually to take action. Shankar admits at first he busied himself thinking up immature ways to get back at Groening — like having battle rappers record themselves making fun of “The Simpsons” creator, or getting street artists to draw Apu doing bad things to Groening while warning him to not be offended — but that ultimately he decided he needed to do something productive.
“I was angry, very angry, I’m now approaching this from a place of love,” said Shankar. “I want to find a solution that is acceptable to everyone, so we can just stop and go back to being on the same side. This doesn’t need to be a thing. We just need to stop debating how severe the problem is and just address the problem. Set a good example for future creators and then move on.”
Shankar has partnered with Coverfly — a screenwriting talent discovery platform, that is building a roster of top undiscovered talent — for the contest, which will start taking submissions today and close on June 30th. Judges include several high profile Indian-Americans including Amar Shah, Nayan Pardari, Sheetal Vyas, Rupak Ginn, Michelle Matsunaga, Nancy Redd, and Kailey Marsh.
Shankar emphasizes that the contest is open to “all humans” and that he is hoping non-screenwriters with ideas about how to handle the “Apu problem” don’t let screenwriting formatting and jargon keep them from applying. He also emphasizes that taking a politically correct approach to the spec script story is not a likely path to victory.
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