In the middle of talking to me about his upcoming documentary on The Simpsons, comic Hari Kondabolu described watching the show with his brother. It was a Treehouse of Horror episode, a Halloween-themed series of vignettes that The Simpsons does every year. In this episode, parodying The Most Dangerous Game, Mr. Burns hunts humans and says, “I smell fear… and curry.” Of course, he then shoots Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian convenience store owner from the show. “That’s not even clever,” Kondabolu said to me over the phone. “And it’s un-Simpsons-like.”
Kondabolu is the producer and star of The Problem With Apu, a documentary airing tonight at 10pm on truTV. It’s about the character, Kondabolu’s own relationship to The Simpsons, and the character’s impact on Indian Americans. Kondabolu interviews Indian American actors and entertainers about how their careers have been waylaid by stereotypes and the racism they have experienced in Hollywood and beyond. It’s also about his futile attempt to talk to Hank Azaria, the white man who voices Apu, who we learn at the beginning of the documentary has declined Kondabolu’s interview request.
In 2012, Kondabolu was writing for Totally Biased with Kamau Bell. He wrote a short comedy segment about the premiere of Mindy Kaling’s then-new show, The Mindy Project, the first ever sitcom starring an Indian American. While the segment was mostly about South Asian representation, Kondabolu included a joke about The Simpsons. At one point, Kondabolu says, “There are now enough Indians that I don’t have to like you just because you’re Indian. Growing up, I had no choice but to like this.” Next to him, a picture of Apu pops up.
The skit resonated with viewers. “It did really well, and it was something that people passed around even after the show got canceled,” Kondabolu said. “The fact that it was still seen as relevant made me think that there’s something deeper here.” The skit’s continued relevance inspired him to make The Problem With Apu. In one part of the documentary, Kondabolu interviews people on the street to ask whether or not they knew Apu is voiced by a white guy. One person, upon learning this, asks Kondabolu how he feels about it. He replies, “Oh, I’m making a movie about how much I dislike it.” Many people in the documentary seem exasperated that no one has talked about Apu in this way before.
It’s not that Apu is an entirely bad character, or that The Simpsons is a bad show. Kondobulu describes himself as a lifelong fan of The Simpsons. In The Problem With Apu, Kondabolu explains how Apu is often propped up as a nice, naive immigrant foil to the more white bread characters’ narcissism and stupidity. But this conflicts with Azaria’s somewhat mocking vocal delivery. In fact, in Kondabolu’s documentary, we learn that Azaria was specifically told not to play the one off convenience store clerk who would become Apu as Indian, but did it anyway. In an interview with the Archive Of American Television, Azaria describes the genesis of the voice as an impersonation of a convenience store clerk who irritated him. “It’s a way of working out aggression,” he said. “I’m describing how annoying you are, this is what you sound like.”
This voice, and the Indian American stereotypes that come with it, have plagued Kondabolu for years. In the segment for Totally Biased, Kondabolu says Apu sounded like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” He described being a fan of a show with a character he finds so demeaning being like eating something that’s partially rotten, trying to avoid the spoiled parts. “That episode I was watching with my brother was hilarious!” he said. “Then it’s like, really? We’re gonna do this now? It takes you out of it, and it reminds you that you don’t belong with us.”
“Initially when Apu came out when I was a kid, I was happy we existed,” Kondabolu told me. “It was like, holy shit, people actually recognize us. We exist. After a while, I was like, that’s not enough, I don’t want to exist like this. I’d rather not exist than if it’s just this one thing.”
As Kondabolu explains in his documentary, the problem with Apu isn’t just the character—it’s that the character is one of the few ways Indian Americans can exist on screen. In conversation with other Indian American actors and entertainers, they describe long careers of playing cabbies, terrorists and convenience store owners. Many say they took these roles because they had no other choice. Actress Sakina Jaffrey, who plays Antara Nayar on Mr. Robot, describes to Kondabolu “patanking,” which is the act of performing a broad, stereotypical Indian accent, saying she is expected to do it “like a monkey.”
Kondabolu was very aware that making a documentary that’s critical of a beloved television show would catch him some heat. Even before the documentary has aired, he’s faced criticism online for being “too sensitive” or “politically correct.” For Kondabolu, criticizing Apu isn’t about telling people what art they can or cannot make. “It’s just, especially with Hollywood shit, you have to be more careful, more thoughtful, and wonder whether it’s worth it,” he said. “Is this joke funny enough, or interesting enough?” It’s not something that has an easy answer, and The Problem With Apu doesn’t present one way to fix or change the character.
“One thing would be to develop the characters of his children,” Kondabolu told me when I asked if there was something they could change about Apu that would feel satisfying. “At least then you would have some depth.” He suggested bringing in more South Asian writers, or even letting Apu get another job. “People say to me that you can’t change this beloved thing,” he said. “It’s like, Maude Flanders is dead, Krabappel is gone. They make changes, things happen and you adjust to it.”