The problem with Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a fairly obvious one. The decades-old character from The Simpsons is an obvious racial stereotype, playing off broad characterizations of how Indian and South Asian immigrants were perceived by white Americans in the 1990s and through today. So is it time to retire the beloved character, whom many fans don’t even realize is voiced by white voice actor Hank Azaria? This is the issue that The Problem with Apu attempts to highlight, and as a quick and funny primer on the ways in which racial stereotyping is perpetuated and emblemized by well-meaning white traditionalists, it largely triumphs.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu is a self-professed fan of The Simpsons, which he sees as a bastion of intellectualism and culture as distilled through popular comedy, but as the son of Indian immigrants, Apu has always disturbed and haunted him as a tone-deaf caricature of his parents, painting them as servile and silly. The words “Thank you, come again” have haunted him for nearly three decades, and he tires of the most prominent South Asian voice in popular culture being a white writers’ room’s idea of a funny gag. This is why he decided to make this documentary, so as to put a spotlight on why Apu is an anachronism that needs to be retired.
What Kondabolu is more than willing to demonstrate is that he isn’t the only South Asian descendant in the entertainment industry who feels this way about Apu. Through interviews with Aziz Ansari, Aasif Mandvi, Kal Penn, Aparna Nancherla, and many others, we discover everything from a begrudging tolerance of the character to a complete dismissal of the show for the racist depiction. Interspersed are explanations of America’s history of caricaturizing minority populations through minstrel shows and blackface, as well as the modern practices of forcing minority actors into roles that belittle and mock their cultural heritage. Those a bit more savvy to the film industry probably won’t find too much of this surprising, but Kondabolu shines a light on these practices in an irreverent and entertaining way that will hopefully provoke thought in more than a few in his audience.
The narrative meat of Kondabolu’s film, however, lies in his pursuit of an interview with voice actor Hank Azaria, who routinely dodges criticism of the Apu voice while continuing to milk it in public appearances and, of course, on The Simpsons itself. Kondabolu deftly demonstrates that even when The Simpsons put a lampshade on the issue in a 2016 episode, they did so in a self-excusing and dismissive manner, and for this he would like nothing more than to have Azaria explain himself. This is admittedly the perpetual hook that the film uses for its television formatted commercial interruptions, but as far as those blatantly manipulative hooks go, it’s an effective one, and the payoff is satisfying.
The Problem with Apu is a sharp and witty takedown of one of a pop culture institution’s greatest failings, and it comes from both a place of love for that show and of disgust in how this characterization has been allowed to stand for so long. In a time when white supremacy and xenophobia are becoming more prominent and violent, maybe it’s time to look at established bastions of liberal progressivism with a more modern lens so that we may dismantle the harms they perpetuate in adherence to tradition. Kondabolu loves The Simpsons, but he absolutely has a point that the racial caricature has no place in the show today.