In 1987, a cartoonist named Matt Groening, famed for his Life in Hell comic strips, pitched a series of short sketches for a TV variety program called Tracey Ullman Show, which aired on a recently-launched television network called FOX. The shorts revolved around a dysfunctional family that loosely mirrored Groening’s own family. While the character dynamics stood in contrast to the hypermoralizing, “family-values” norms of 1980’s sitcoms, the shorts became a huge hit with audiences. A couple of years later, the sketches were developed into a half-hour prime time TV program that garnered high ratings within months of its debut on December 16th, 1989.
That TV program was called The Simpsons. Not only was this cartoon instrumental in propelling its parent channel, Fox, onto a competitive standing with more seasoned television networks like NBC, ABC and CBS, The Simpsons became a household brand for American family, acquiring the distinction as “classic Americana”. After over twenty-eight years, The Simpsons continues to air new episodes and Fox has no intentions of cancelling the show anytime soon.
The golden years of the series was during the 1990’s, when its writers were bursting with novel ideas and making incredible strides in screenwriting. The Simpsons had gracefully combined cartoonish gags, absurdist humor, intellectual wit, and sociopolitical commentary into a entertaining blend palatable for a wide audience. Although, since the mid-2000s, the writing has become derivative, bland and indulgently self-referential, The Simpsons will always occupy an auspicious place in the pop culture pantheon.
Recently, however, many critics have accused The Simpsons of projecting harmful stereotypes through its character caricatures. This leads into the controversy surrounding Apu. If you’re a fan of The Simpsons like I am, you’d recognize Apu as the Indian convenience store clerk famed for his catchphrase “Thank you, come again!”. He is an immigrant who becomes naturalized as an American citizen. Once an eligible, swinging bachelor in his single days, Apu is married to Manjula and has octopluts with her. Despite the perpetual risks of getting shot on the job, Apu enjoys his job and, despite holding a doctoral degree, continues to work as a convenience store clerk simply because he’s made so many friends and had grown to love his customers.
As a child, I’ve loved Apu. In fact, the character had helped me reconcile my Indian heritage with my American upbringing. In The Simpsons, Apu is shown to be an immigrant who not only values his adopted country, but knows more about American history than most Springfeldeans (granted, given the collective IQ of Springfeld, its not a high bar). He enthusiastically participates in community events, once served as a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, and was briefly a member of the barbershop quartet, The Be Sharps, with Homer, Barney, and Seymour Skinner. Nevertheless, Apu remains steadfastly attached to his Indian heritage. He proudly displays the Ganesh statue on the check-out counter of the Kwik-e-Mart, adheres to a strict vegan diet in accordance to his Hindu faith, and continuously keeps his promise to his parents to “never forget who [he] is”. Apu represents that ideal balance between integration in the new world and loyalty to old-world traditions.
In November of last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu released his documentary The Problem with Apu, which was a 45-minute diatribe against the character of Apu, featuring input from A-list Indian-American celebrities including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi and even the former surgeon-general Vivek Murthy. The Problem with Apu was a manipulative bitchfest that paints The Simpsons writers as out-of-touch and prejudicial, asserting that Apu, as a crude, one-dimensional character voiced by a White actor, has traumatized second-generation Indian-Americans. During his appearances on The View and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Hari Kondabolu insisted that he had no problem with Apu and his documentary was merely about lack of Indian representation in American pop culture during the “pre-Aziz-Ansari-and-Mindy-Kaling days”.
Now, I will acknowledge that before the mid-2000s, the only representations Indian-Americans had in Hollywood and American television were orientalized caricatures like Sabu, Hadji from Johnny Quest, and Amrish Puri’s character in Temple of Doom. However, I would argue that in comparison to those characters, Apu was actually fairly fleshed-out and well-developed. Granted, his thick (inaccurate) Indian accent and his typical Indian-uncle mannerisms come across as cartoonish. However, Apu’s stereotypical depiction is no different than Luigi, Fat Tony or Groundskeeper Willie. And unlike those characters, I would also argue that Apu’s positive attributes-his intelligence, his work ethic, his devotion to his family (despite one instance of infidelity) and his determination-outweigh his stereotypical traits.
A potentially nuanced and in-depth conversation over minority representation in media was completely overshadowed by Kondabolu’s seemingly personal grudge towards Hank Azaria, the voice actor for Apu, and his obsessive quest to get him to appear in the documentary. When Hank Azaria responds to Kondabolu’s request, through an email, by declining to appear, citing his fears that his responses will be misrepresented. At which point, Kondabolu poignantly turns to the camera and berates Azaria of being hypocritical because, according to Kondabolu, as a White actor voicing an Indian character, Azaria is guilty of misrepresenting Indians. Of course, from the way Hari Kondabolu has framed this entire topic in his documentary, I can’t say I blame Azaria.
Kondabolu’s documentary came across as petty and self-indulgent. Kondabolu purports himself to speak on behalf on all second-generation Indian-Americans. He managed to recruit the Justice League of Indian-American celebrities and yet neglects to seek the opinions of ordinary Indian immigrants, including the thousands of hard-working convenience store clerks scattered throughout the country. If I could be honest and blunt, this documentary seems to be nothing more than a pedestal to bolster Kondabolu’s career. And while he fancies himself to be a voice for marginalized communities, Kondabolu has no problem launching shaming campaigns targeting figures like Bobby Jindal and Ajit Pai due to their respective politics, accusing them of being whitewashed and race traitors. In December of 2017, in light of Ajit Pai’s decision to revoke FCC net neutrality regulations, Kondabolu accused Ajit Pai of being servile to his White corporate masters and admonished him for disrespecting his Indian roots. However, Pai has been known to be extremely prideful of his Konkani Indian roots and Hindu heritage. Whatever you think of Pai’s politics (and believe me, I have no respect for his views or political ambitions), it’s extremely egregious to accuse him of being whitewashed. And Hari Kondabolu continues to yelp about “misrepresentation”. Talk about hypocrisy!