One day I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and suddenly I see friends sharing articles of an upcoming documentary about the one and only Apu from the Simpsons. The one hour long documentary was to live stream on truTV, and reporters from NPR, Variety, and Mashable were already giving the inside scoop. This past Sunday night curiosity lead me to secure a temporary free trial on Hulu to watch the documentary.
To be quite frank, I had no idea who Hari Kondabolu was and that a channel called truTV even existed. (I promise I don’t live under a rock!) However, a discussion on stereotypes and the advancement of South Asians in media will always, guaranteed, peak my interest.
It is ironic first of all, to note that Hari Kondabolu, who created and hosts this documentary is a comedian himself. As clips in the documentary show, prior to 9/11, he included stereotypical South Asians accents and the usual lines about curry in his stand up comedy skits. So you’d wonder why a person who “harmlessly” promoted these jokes would write a documentary about the (in his words) “servile, devious, and goofy” Apu from the Simpsons?
Well the tensions of 9/11 helped changed his perspective, and in his documentary he describes a transformation in his thought process. He realized that through his jokes he was minimizing South Asians to a stringent stereotype as the writers of the Simpsons did with Apu. He decided to use his comedic platform to instead shift the viewer’s perspective of South Asians as he wanted them to see it.
With this documentary he does not necessarily succeed in changing the minds of the Simpson’s writers in realizing Apu’s harmful effects, BUT he does succeed in reviving an important discussion for the general public on the fine line between cultural disrespect and comedic portrayal. For those of us that are South Asians, we also realize that while we are the victims we can often be the perpetrators as well who through our complacency only give rise to repeated “Apu-style” stereotypes. The wide-spread attention this documentary has received in the press and the noteworthy South Asian celebrities who have been interviewed in this documentary will only give rise to a heap of important racial conversations.
After all which South Asian individual living in the United States has not seen/heard/faced an Apu comparison at some point or another?
Just ask former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy who mentions in this documentary how he was ridiculed in the 7th grade by a classmate with an Apu accent. Or even Hasan Minaj who raised his hand when Hari Kondabolu asked him in a room with other celebrities if anyone was ever called Apu?
It happened to them, and it happens to us.
I guess for me it all started in elementary school where some of my male friends would mock the Apu accent and mentioned 7/11 convenience stores. When I was seven I always shook the stereotype off, because ultimately I myself was not conscious where the fine line between racism and jokes took place. I also had no idea what damage a feigned Indian accent could only play. I was only seven and I just wanted to fit in. However, while I didn’t understand the fuss about 7/11 as all my relatives were engineers, doctors, and other professionals, I decided to let the matter go. It was when I started realizing my own excitement at seeing South Asians on TV and exclaiming to my friends/family, “Hey they’re Indian!”, and thought why are there such few Indians on TV that I became attuned to the harsh realities of society.
The same string of attitudes that make it acceptable to give a character such as Apu prominence in American media also previously allowed Caucasian actors to play Indian roles in American movies. Ever heard of the pool scene from the 1968 movie, The Party where an Indian man inquires about the game of pool? Well neither did I until I saw this documentary and realized that “Indian man” was not even played by an Indian actor. Today we see Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari with their own shows. We see Hasan Minaj and Aasif Mandvi not asked to speak in accents on the Today Show. While there are strides of progress and while we can’t necessarily eradicate Apu’s character, there still is a need for discussion about stereotypes.
Another interesting point the documentary showcases is the perspective of first generation South Asian Americans versus their immigrant parents. When Hari Kondabolu asked his parents if the Apu stereotype offended him, they seemed to empathize more with the writers of the show as opposed to Hari. When Hari asked why, his mother’s response was that the writer’s were successfully making money, and that while the stereotype might offend them, at the time of the show’s release, it was really not the place of immigrants to challenge these stereotypical conventions. My takeaway from watching this portion of the documentary was that first generation South Asian Americans are more capable of challenging these stereotypical conventions due to their secure privileges in their identity as South Asian Americans. Using our available mediums whether it be in the form of a documentary as Hari creates or raising our voices on social media, we are now in a day and age where we don’t have to worry about losing our jobs for expressing our viewpoints. Chances are if you were in immigrant during 1989 at the time of the Simpson’s release, the public would not have listened so well to your complaints.
I believe Dr. Vivek Murthy worded it best when he said all stereotypes have a half-life. In the end they can only disappear if we as South Asian Americans are good at “telling our own story”.
So overall, I commend Hari Kondabolu for igniting this important topic and making it known that while the character of Apu persists and he continues to be “funny”, the depth of South Asian culture exists outside “feigned accents” and “potbelly 7/11 owners”. The rest of the responsibility is ours as readers to explain that we will never be satisfied as being showcased as just Apu’s.