The Problem with Apu

Hari Kondabolu works with a form that can be difficult to describe. It contains elements of stand-up comedy, but also community advocacy, motivational speaking, and consciousness raising. His acts are not simply stand-up comedy pointed towards important subjects (that’s nothing new); they are texturally different from pure stand-up, with a serious, even dark, undertone bristling beneath the surface at all times.

His recent short-form documentary, The Problem With Apu, loses some of that edge compared to his live work. He interviews dozens of people, from other South Asian actors, to film historians, to Whoopi Goldberg, to former Simpsons producers. This is what you have to do in a documentary, but it breaks up the intensity of the smoldering, barely-under control anger that drives his stage work.

Now, that said, the film is really, really good. And I think it might be especially good if you’re someone who saw the premise and sneered “some SJW whining about TV again”, or even just got defensive and thought “but the Simpsons are so good”. The film is not a hatchet job; it does not try to guilt you into boycotting anything. But it is a very compelling exploration of how representation in media works, and how in particular the character of Apu has affected the lives of South Asians in the US.

I think the weaknesses the film has may have been based on Kondabolu running up against the clock: the piece is too short. It clocks in at a little bit under an hour, and doesn’t give Hari the time to really poke around some of the dark closets he opens the doors to.

For instance: I would have liked him to unpack the phrase “Indan accent”. India in the sense of the modern Republic has 22 institutional languages (as well as official recognition for English, Portuguese, and French) and literally hundreds of regional languages; India in the sense of the subcontinent and outlying islands has several more. These languages represent a dizzying variety of families; Hindi is┬ámore closely related to English than to Telugu, Kondabolu’s parents’ native language. There is literally nothing that sonically ties all of these languages together, and the accents sound nothing like one another.

But to Americans, the “Indian accent” means a Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, or Sindhi accent. And (they do get into this at one point) what Americans seem to notice most are those beautiful retroflex consonants (make a “t” sound with the tip of your tongue against the top of your mouth rather than just above your top teeth). This amused me because when Marathi-speaking people would make fun of my accent, they would also exaggerate those retroflex sounds, because as an American I lack a pure dental “t”.

I also wish they had had time to make a contrast that seemed to be glaring out to be made. Apu and Groundskeeper Willie are two immigrant characters with accents. There’s another immigrant character with no accent: Carl. Lou (and that is Azaria again) also does not have an accent. Dr. Hibbert’s accent is simply “patrician”. I feel confident in saying that the Simpsons would never in a million years have played a black character with a parody AAVE accent — they know their fans would not have accepted it. And that’s pretty damning.

No doubt some pissed off white southern troll is now going to make “The Problem with Cletus” (and I’ll even say I think that’s a lazily-written character). But if you can brush aside an immediate knee-jerk like that, this is a film that anybody who cares about representation and/or the Simpsons should see. And I really hope he gets the chance to rework this into a feature-length.

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