Hari Kondabolu’s ‘The Problem With Apu’ Shines a Light on Meaningful Representation

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The Problem with Apu, a documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu premiered on November 19th, is perhaps more a mockumentary. In it, Kondabolu takes on the Simpsons, one of the longest running televisions shows still on air, to expose what he finds to be the overtly racist and minstrel character that is Apu

The problem with The Problem with Apu (I’m sorry, it was too easy) is that if you’re hoping for a documentary, you’ll likely be disappointed. This is a fun piece. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it also doesn’t sell itself short. It explores the awkwardness of a white man, Hank Azaria, portraying a South Asian character in a reductive way, starting at a time when there were little to no alternative portrayals of South Asiansin media. The documentary has been a longterm project in the making, so the recent surge in South Asian characters onscreen shouldn’t be held against the goal of this documentary, which is to explore South Asian stereotypes and racism in the entertainment industry. Throughout the film, Kondabolu sits down to talk with folks like Whoopi Goldberg, Aziz Ansari, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Sakina Jaffrey, Aparna Nancherla, Russell Peters, W. Kamau Bell, Dana Gould and others.

Another problem with The Problem with Apu (I lied) is that it is a fragmented, haphazard, and meandering conversation filled with strange graphics choices and odd joke placements. There is something jarring about flipping back and forth between light and funny, and somewhat serious. At one point, there is a goofy graphic with 9/11 footage reflecting onto Kondabolu’s glasses. I wonder if there were too many tones trying to be achieved simultaneously. On the one hand, he’s trying to make a really compelling point, trying to contribute to the conversation on representation in writers rooms, and on the other, there are self deprecating jabs that often fall flat. Which isn’t to say that either one is bad–it’s clearly his own humor and style, it’s just that they don’t really flow naturally together.

The most interesting conversation is one Kondabolu has with his parents. They express how they are often offended and upset by portrayals like Apu, but that stereotyping was something they had dealt with regularly, especially at a time when they didn’t have the agency or ability to stand up for themselves. Kondabolu, however, has a platform to do so. “We came here, we have to succeed no matter. It doesn’t mean we are not offended by it,” says Uma Kondabolu, the creator’s mother, speaking to him. “Times have changed. You have security and you belong here. You are an American.”

The documentary also does a good job of bringing a number of South Asian media personalities into the fold, such as former Daily Show correspondent and man of my dreams, Aasif Mandvi. He points out our buying-in on the mockery of our own culture by others. “There’s a kind of complacency that happens in our culture, like, around that stuff, you know?,” he tells Kondabolu in the film. “Where even we start going like ‘oh it’s funny’, and this is the insidiousness of racism. The person who is subjected to it, who is buying into as sort of a cultural norm. Like ‘oh, it’s not a problem’, ‘it’s fine’, ‘what’s the big deal’, ‘you’re overreacting’.” The difficulty that arises in wanting to call out bullshit for being bullshit, then, is that we’re the ones often dismissing the racism.

Despite feeling like an unorganized and impromptu conversation you would have on the floor of someone’s apartment, Kondabolu does address a number of different subtopics (on South Asians in media), like, should we blame an actor for playing someone racist, or are they just doing their job? What is the role of an accent or impression in comedy (Russell Peters, are you there?), or can we judge or understand intent behind questionable (racist) comedy? Does representation even matter? *

*Trick question, it does (of course). But why? Hasan Minhaj, a current Daily Show correspondent, and Aparna Nancherla, a writer on The Nightly Show, made two important points on the impact lacking representation had, and still does.

It influenced, like, our whole class of comedians, and some of our favorite writers came from there. Dana Gould, Conan, like so many,” says Minhaj, “And to me, it was like, oh, ‘was that just like a blind spot, to these people that are considered to be comedic geniuses?” Minhaj highlights, as a comedian, how personal the impact of racist characters like Apu has been.

“I feel like that still happens in writers rooms now. It’s like, whoever sits at the table, informs the discussion,” says Nancherla, “so if it’s all white men, you’re gonna have someone make an off-color joke and not realize the extent to which it is inappropriate.” According to both Minhaj and Nancherla, representation is the key to avoiding stereotypical and racist characterizations like Apu.

I don’t know if I’m supposed to give this stars or a rankings or something, but I’m going to. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s a funny documentary. It’s very self-aware. At no point is it pretending that it isn’t half tongue-in-cheek/half perfectly in-tune to the path of South Asian representation. Watching the documentary can be validating for anyone who has ever been bullied for their brown-ness, had to answer questions like “Do you get free Slurpees because your dad works at 7/11?”, or felt even a modicum of embarrassment towards their parents because of their accent, clothing, or, sadly, love. Whether or not this film was successful in achieving its goal is hard to say, because at some point along the way, it became less about fixing or changing Apu, and more about the impact this character had on most every South Asian currently in American media. Which is fine, because it was a much more compelling narrative that way, anyway.

You can go ahead and stream the documentary right now on TruTV’s website.

Three Stars! It’s under an hour long, anyways.

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