This article was updated with corrected information.
Movies and television have always been a huge part of my life. I love going to the movie theatre and, much to my parents’ chagrin, I am usually glued to the TV while at home. As an Indian-American and the son of immigrants, my parents ensured I knew my cultural identity. My parents introduced me to Hinduism, took me to India on numerous occasions and practiced Indian cultures and customs at home. They also speak Tamil — my parents’ native language — and English at home.
Growing up with movies and TV, I never thought much about representation. This all changed when I rewatched an important documentary.
In Nov. 2017, Hari Kondabalu, a popular Indian-American stand-up comedian and filmmaker, released the documentary “The Problem with Apu.” It focuses on Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a character from the highly successful U.S. sitcom “The Simpsons,” and the issues borne out of this character as well as his impact.
Kondabalu’s thesis was that as a result of Apu being the most prominent South Asian figure in mainstream U.S. television, this stereotype has now carried into how South Asians in the U.S. are ultimately perceived. By bringing in other prominent South Asian entertainment figures into the documentary such as Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari and Aasif Mandvi, Kondabalu uses the character of Apu to show the negative impact of stereotypes towards South Asians.
I was never the biggest fan of “The Simpsons,” but I always made sure to watch it because it was so popular and I wanted to be able to talk to my friends about it at school the next day. At the height of its popularity, “The Simpsons” was a hilarious, unapologetically brilliant show whose broad appeal could reach anyone.
But I have never given much thought to the character of Apu.
Despite being a terrible stereotype, Apu was always a very eccentric character who never did much that really interested me and was simply another stereotype in a show that is already filled with them. Until I was in 7th grade, I had no idea Apu was voiced by a white voice actor, Hank Azaria. Upon learning this, I was not immediately angered or offended — I was flustered as to why they could not hire an Indian actor to voice him.
This documentary by Kondabalu really stuck with me because it clearly showed how little representation South Asians have in entertainment.
We, as a demographic, have always been stuck to portraying cab drivers, doctors or convenience store owners who all have thick, over-the-top accents. I cannot even begin to count the number of times people have said, “Thank you, come again,” to me in the “Apu accent,” assumed my parents owned a 7-Eleven or openly mocked my culture. However, I have never let these frustrations get to me because I knew that these people were wrong. I simply shrugged it off.
Upon reflection, I realized that my problem has never been with Apu specifically. He is a stereotype just like every other character on “The Simpsons”. The problem for me is the lack of representation.
If a character like Apu is the most prominent South Asian figure in mainstream U.S. television, then the problem is not the character — it is within the people who choose to let this stereotyping be the norm: the so-called “gatekeepers” of Hollywood.
In recent years, with the movement in Hollywood for more representation, I can clearly see the changing of the guard.
In 2016, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, the creators of Netflix’s “Master of None,” won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for the episode “Parents,” which highlights the immigrant stories of the main character’s parents (played to perfection by Ansari’s own parents). And in Jan. 2019, in Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the U.S., Amazon closed a then-record deal of $13 million for “Late Night”. The comedy is written by Mindy Kaling, who will also produce and star in the film, and directed by Nisha Ganatra, a female Canadian filmmaker of Indian descent.
Audiences are hungrier than ever for different, personal stories told from a multitude of backgrounds; we just need the opportunity to tell them.