In 'The Problem With Apu,' Hari Kondabolu Discusses South Asian Representation
ELISE HU, HOST:
Hari Kondabolu is a Brooklyn-based standup comedian, the child of Indian immigrants, and a big fan of...
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The Simpsons.
HU: "The Simpsons." But one character on the show has haunted him for much of his life.
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HANK AZARIA: (As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon) Hello, welcome to the Kwik-E-Mart.
(As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon) Hello, gents, what will it be?
(As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon) Silly customer, you cannot hurt a Twinkie.
(As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon) Thank you, come again.
HU: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the show's Indian-born convenience store clerk. Or as Kondabolu puts it...
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HARI KONDABOLU: Apu, a cartoon character voiced by Hank Azaria, a white guy.
KONDABOLU: A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.
HU: Apu bothered Kondabolu so much he made a movie about it called "The Problem With Apu." He joined me to talk about it. And I asked him, "The Simpsons" is famous for using stereotypes like an Italian chef or Willie, the Scottish groundskeeper - what makes Apu different?
KONDABOLU: There are other representations of Italians. I'm not saying they're all good. But there's a - wider representations of people who are Italian, people who are Scottish. I don't know of any kids who are Scottish that grew up with - who are like, God, Groundskeeper Willie really embarrasses me and my parents. But, like, for me, because of my skin color there was no hiding from it. There was no, that's not me. You know, I didn't have a bunch of other brown characters. This was it. And that's the big difference.
HU: Throughout the documentary you talk to those in your generation, other big-name South Asian-American actors and comedians - Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn. They talk, too, about this lack of representation or complex representation. What did their experiences have in common?
KONDABOLU: I think they all dealt with being narrowly seen. As actors, I mean, there's a lot of typecasting, right? And actors are important in this story because they're the ones, especially in minority communities, that represent the whole. So all of a sudden they're being forced to represent, you know, their community in ways that they wouldn't agree with. And even when they were asked to do accents - you know, like, I was - I talked to Aasif Mandvi, who was the first South Asian correspondent on "The Daily Show." And it's like, you would have something that was very specific to a certain region of South Asia or India, and the casting directors, who were not South Asian, generally white, would be like, yeah, but can you do the Apu voice? And that's very upsetting.
HU: So let me ask you, if Apu weren't voiced by Hank Azaria, a white man, but instead voiced by an Indian actor, would that make the character more acceptable to you?
KONDABOLU: Yeah, more acceptable doesn't mean acceptable.
KONDABOLU: It just means less unacceptable. It still has the same issues of there aren't that many representations. I mean, if you look at the history of minstrelsy, you know, there are black characters played by black actors, you know, in, like, the '20s. And they were awful roles. Like, yeah, we get to play ourselves now, but not really. And we get to do these voices, but not really. And I think that's key in here. Like, it's like if a brown person does the voice it's a paycheck, but it's also a lot of, I think, pride that's swallowed.
HU: You spend the film - hopefully this doesn't give things away too much, but you spend the film trying to reach Hank Azaria to talk to him about this problem with Apu. And you didn't get to reach him. Sorry, Hari.
HU: If you ever do get to talk to him about this, what will you say?
KONDABOLU: I mean, if I got a chance to talk to Hank I would have the conversation I planned to have, which was, how did this character get created? Why is the voice the way it is? Why is the name what it is? Why was this acceptable at the time? Was there ever any second-guessing whether this was a good idea? These are all things I'm curious about. At the end of the day, you know, he's a brilliant voice actor. I'm still a fan.
So I would like to have a real public discourse because that's what this country is lacking. I mean, this is about a fairly small, simple subject, but we open it up to a bunch of different things, right? It's a cartoon character on "The Simpsons," but it's also about the history of representation in this country. And it's about the impact of poor representation. And the idea of me and Hank having that discussion publicly on tape, that would have been really powerful. And I wish that was in the movie. And if Hank wants to talk now I still want to do that.
HU: Invitation's still open, huh (ph)?
KONDABOLU: Absolutely, because it's not about the film. It's about moving us forward. You need awkward conversations that people generally try to avoid.
HU: And you get at this a little bit in the film, Hari, but what do you say to people who say, what's the big deal, you're overreacting? Apu is funny, right?
KONDABOLU: I think something can be funny and it's not necessarily right. Like, I find Apu funny. He's a really funny character. But he's based on this faulty foundation of, like, a caricature. So, you know, fundamentally everything that he's going to do is based on a caricature. And that's weird. Like, this whole character is what white writers thought of us 30 years ago, thought of our community. This isn't how we represent ourselves. This is how they view us. And that's a hell of a thing.
And I remember watching "The Simpsons" as a kid. And I still love "The Simpsons." And I would always be taken out of the show a little bit when Apu would come on or there would be another racist stereotype 'cause it'd be like, oh, this wasn't for us. This was meant for someone else. And it matters now because I feel like we need to talk about the history of the past if we're going to move forward. You have to know how we got here, and we have to learn not to repeat mistakes. Racism doesn't just disappear. It mutates. It shows up in different ways. And I think that's our job. We have to figure out what this is before it mutates and squash it.
HU: All right, that's standup comedian Hari Kondabolu. His new film, "The Problem With Apu," premieres November 19 on TruTV. Hari, thanks.
KONDABOLU: Thank you, Elise.
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