Published Nov 16, 2017For New York-bred comedian Hari Kondabolu and millions of other South Asians coming of age in the 1990s, The Simpsons was both a cultural beacon and a wounding source of shame. That's because voice actor Hank Azaria's creation, the iconic Kwik-E-Mart owner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, was arguably Springfield's most famous ethnic stereotype and certainly the one most Indian kids (like me) had to answer for growing up in North America.
Kondabolu has spent the past few years working on The Problem With Apu, a documentary that asks a wide range of Indian and South Asian comedians, actors and at least one former U.S. Surgeon General (Vivek Murthy) about overcoming ethnic stereotyping. Featuring Aziz Ansari, Aparna Nancherla, Kal Penn, Hasan Minhaj, Russell Peters and Aasif Mandvi, among others, Kondabolu's film captures a moment in time where a small cohort of South Asians are finally ascending in show biz. Essentially representing the same (often first) generation, they all report some negative association with Apu, and Kondabolu does a nice job of explaining why.
With hints of Michael Moore's knowing flair for digestible, TV magazine journalism, Kondabolu and his team have created a rather stylized doc that relies on the odd splash of animation and sight gags to dissect this cartoon character. And much like Moore's Roger & Me, Kondabolu's film eventually becomes this personal quest to speak with Azaria, on the record, about why it's problematic that his racist invention is generally viewed as beloved and harmless.
As Kondabolu takes great pains to illuminate, Apu remains a haunting distortion. In 2017, he should be an unpleasant memory and, based on The Simpsons' diminished cultural cachet, for some he mostly is. But if South Asian actors, comedians, writers and Surgeon Generals have elevated profiles these days, The Problem With Apu exposes their psychic scars, suggesting that fighting back against Hollywood's Indian minstrelsy (from The Party to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Short Circuit to The Simpsons, just to name a few) provided at least some of the fuel for their fire.