On April 24th Hank Azaria made an appearance on Stephen Colbert, where he said he was “perfectly willing to step aside” from playing the world-famous Indian convenience store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon who had been a regular character in The Simpsons since 1990. “I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with (Apu),” he said. If only it were that simple; Indians and Indian-Americans themselves don’t seem to know how to feel about the issue. And this incongruence of opinion has never been more apparent, especially since YouTuber Adi Shanker told IndieWire this October that he had heard from various credible sources that the Simpsons writers are going to “drop the Apu character altogether”. This caused uproar amongst the community; some for the loss of a lovable icon, and some who think the move is a weak sidestepping of the actual issue at hand.
“You’d watch The Simpsons on a Sunday and you’d get a sense of how you’d be made fun of at school on Monday”
The conversation regarding Apu and the repercussions of his representation of Indian immigrants was brought to light in Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu. In this documentary, Kondabolu points out how Apu affected him, saying, “You’d watch The Simpsons on a Sunday and you’d get a sense of how you’d be made fun of at school on Monday.” On some level, Kondabolu states, “Apu reflected how America viewed us: servile, devious, goofy.” But is this maybe too harsh a criticism on what was once the only representation of Indian-Americans on mainstream television? Is it really, as writer Mike Reiss says, that “after three decades, time has run out for Apu”?
The goal is to be represented accurately; in a way that truly captures the multifaceted and diverse lives of Indian Americans
This brings us to the other side of the argument and the view that Apu’s eccentricities are lovable and laughable, and not necessarily an insulting depiction of the entire Indian-American population. One such person in agreement with this view is Bhaskar Sunkara of The Guardian, who says that, to him, “to be represented at all seemed like progress.” He further credits The Simpsons’ writers for making Apu an “emotionally developed” character, with his own plotlines and motives, representing simply one version of the Indian immigrant.
However, today, we’ve progressed to a level where we see the Indian immigrant in various positions of society, whose accolades and three-dimensionality are slowly gathering velocity in mainstream American media. There’s Mindy Kaling headlining movies like Ocean’s Eight and A Wrinkle In Time amongst A-listers like Sandra Bullock and Oprah Winfrey. There’s Priyanka Chopra, a lauded heroine from the Indian film industry with her recent foray into Hollywood, playing roles from FBI agents to Baywatch villains. There’s Aziz Ansari, who seamlessly moves from lovable co-worker Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation to struggling actor Dev Shah in his self-conceived show Master of None. ‘To be represented at all’ is no longer the goal. Instead, the goal is to be represented accurately; in a way that truly captures the multifaceted and diverse lives of Indian Americans, across all classes, professions, genders, and ages.
It is important to remember that Apu was in some ways the beacon of representation for Indian-Americans, and Kondabolu himself acknowledges this. Today, he still represents a fraction of Indian-Americans; family-oriented, working-class, and serving the American consumer. Therefore, while he may be a regressive stereotype, he holds a special significance to so much of the Indian-American community.
Hopefully, Apu will make an appearance yet again, not as a white man’s perception of the Indian-American, but as an Indian-Americans’ perception of the world he lives in
Instead of erasing him from the show, a better solution would be to contrast him with versions of the modern Indian-American, either through the means of his seemingly never-ending extended family or his children, similar to what The Simpsons achieved in the episode Much Apu About Something by introducing Apu’s nephew Jay, a caricature of the millennial Indian-American. Another answer to the problem would be to hire Indian-American writers and voice actors, because Indians poking fun at themselves are much easier to laugh at than a white man putting on an accent and relying on antiquated generalisations to fodder storylines. Satire is ultimately for the pleasure of the audience, but when your demographic no longer relates to the jokes you make the result shouldn’t be that you stop making jokes altogether, you should instead adapt your material.
By axing Apu from the show, the writers are denying themselves an opportunity to make comedy that instead of commodifying Indian culture, pokes fun at people’s differences in a way that celebrates them. Hopefully, Apu will make an appearance yet again, not as a white man’s perception of the Indian-American, but as an Indian-Americans’ perception of the world he lives in. Therefore, from Indians and Indian-Americans across the globe, I use Apu’s own catchphrase to bid him farewell: “Thank you, come again.”
Photo Credit: daryl_mitchell via Flickr