The Problem With Apu

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Problem With Apu
"It also serves as a sharp reminder how any minority, when under-represented in the media, is at risk of being stereotyped and how too many creative teams are still dominated by white, middle-class males."

This bright and breezy made-for-TV documentary is framed as a personal quest by Brooklyn-based comic Hari Kondabolu against the lingering legacy of The Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on the generations of US South Asians who have grown up since the animated Kwik-e-Mart owner first appeared onscreen in 1989.

Director Michael Melamedoff captures Kondabolu in conversation with other celebrities and actors of South Asian descent including Kal Penn (Harold And Kumar Get The Munchies, Designated Survivor), Aziz Ansari (Parks & Recreation), Aparna Nancherla (Late Night With Seth Myers) and Sakina Jaffrey (The Mindy Project, The Meyerowitz Stories) he discusses some of the impact his stereotypical portrayal, not to mention his catchphrase, "Thank you. Come again." have had on their lives. There is an acknowledgement of counter-arguments regarding the general character stereotyping in The Simpsons and by addressing them rather than skirting the issue, Kondabolu is able to broaden out the debate.

Running at just shy of 50 minutes, this may be a canter through the relevant points, but it is an effective one, highlighting, among other things, how problematic it is that Apu is voiced by white American Hank Azaria. As Kondabolu puts it, he's "a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father". Kondabolu effectively uses Apu to make a wider point about the under-representation of South Asians in shows and in the media. which means that, as Surgeon General Vivek Murthy observes, "stereotypes have a long half-life". More in-depth discussion is, no doubt, warranted but Kondabolou never takes himself too seriously - aiming to win over his audience with humour rather than harangue them - and there are nice interludes with his parents and Whoopi Goldberg, who offers some interesting thoughts about the way that ignorance can drive stereotyping as much as overt racism.

While this may be more relevant to US audiences than British ones, with South Asian families represented more broadly in television and roles for considerably longer on this side of the Atlantic, it also serves as a sharp reminder how any minority, when under-represented in the media, is at risk of being stereotyped and how too many creative teams are still dominated by white, middle-class males.

The framing device of wanting to meet Azaria to talk about his portrayal of Apu may initially seem like nothing more than a stunt but the voice actor's unwillingness to speak on camera about it ultimately says almost as much about the character as Kondabolu

The Problem With Apu is available on VoD from November 20.

Reviewed on: 15 Nov 2017
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The Problem With Apu packshot
The problematic representation of the Indian shopkeeper in The Simpsons.

Director: Michael Melamedoff

Year: 2017

Runtime: 49 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

DOC NYC 2017

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