Thank you, come again.
It’s been a phrase, innocuous at first take and humiliating in practice, that has followed South Asian kiddos around their childhoods. If you lived through the 1990s, you became a stand in for The Simpsons‘ Apu in every conversation with a non-brown person and you’ve had this phrase repeated directly into your face, combined inelegantly with a jeering smile and flying spittle. This shitty stereotype of an Indian immigrant in the middle of white suburbia was, for many years, the only South Asian representation on television. It shaped America’s perception of brown people for decades. And comedian Hari Kondabolu is tired of it.
In his upcoming documentary, The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu chases the cartoon character from his racist origins to his onscreen depictions to the very real effect he had on South Asian performers. The film will premiere on truTV this Fall. In it, Kondabolu can be seen discussing the character of Apu with Simpsons writer Dana Gould, comedian Aasif Mandvi, and Hollywood heavyweight Whoopi Goldberg. He casts a wide net as he gets down to the bottom of what exactly is the problem with Apu. Though Apu’s voice actor, Hank Azaria, is a notable absence from the interview portions of the film, Kondabolu has made sure to include clips of Azaria talking about the origins of Apu’s racist accent.
It’s exciting that a full-fledged documentary of this style comes out at a time when the representation of South Asians and brown-skinned people is being hotly debated in works like Master of None and Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin. Unsettlingly though it seems that Kondabolu attempts to run the argument that Apu is like minstrelsy, similar to blackface. This assertion goes back to an early Kondabolu tweet from 2010 where the comedian explained that Apu is played by a white man behind “brown paint.”
Apu on The Simpsons consists of a white man’s voice (Hank Azaria) and brown paint. Therefore, I posit that Apu is a minstrel.
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) May 21, 2010
While the film itself seems like an interesting addition to the conversation around representation, this comparison creates a false equivalency. Blackface and minstrel shows come from a very real legacy of slavery and entrenched racism against black people. The issues with Apu are clear without making that comparison. Anti-blackness should not be used as a metaphor.
Despite this frustrating argument, Kondabolu’s discussion about Apu and Azaria’s brownface will no doubt be illuminating because, as he says, he’s had over 28 years to develop his feelings about it. And many of us are ready to get to the bottom of this racist character.
Watch the trailer below: