What is the problem with Apu?

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Portrayals of Indian characters in Hollywood down the years are more artistically offensive than culturally so — stereotypes on screen are grown on the scrubland of cultural ignorance and under-researched one-dimensional characters.

Hank Azaria's brief may have been to voice an offensively caricaturised culturally-ambivalent Indian for comedic purposes. But this form of reductive stereotyping forms the basis for ignorance of other cultures. | Pop Culture Geek's Flickr photostream

 

If you are a culturally aware human being, you definitely know what or who The Simpsons are. Even your neighbourhood aunty who abhors Hollywood and refused to watch Titanic because “they show kissing and sex” knows them. You may not watch the show but you know the family of yellow-coloured skin and misshapen heads floating through their lives, which seem to defy all the laws of time and space.

On February 25, 1990, in the eighth episode of The Simpsons’s first season (The Telltale Head), a character called Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was introduced. Apu (named after the eponymous character of Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy), who is voiced by white American actor Hank Azaria, is the Indian immigrant owner and manager of the Kwik-E-Mart. He has orange skin, unlike his fellow Springfield residents, and has what white Americans assume to be a delightful Indian accent. His catchphrase “thank you, come again!” is loved, imitated by millions of Simpsons fans everywhere and has even been turned into a meme. Much to the ire of Indian-American comedian and actor Hari Kondabolu.

On November 19, 2017, the American cable television channel truTV premiered The Problem with Apu, a documentary written and presented by Kondabolu. Kondabolu explored the character of Apu and how it impacted the lives of several prominent South-Asian Americans, most of whom work in Hollywood, are children of immigrant parents, and have had to endure being reduced to stereotypes in the auditions they have attended and the roles they have taken up. Kondabolu even addressed the exaggerated Indian accent done by Apu, which is known as ‘patanking’.

  patank (v)

To speak English with an exaggerated enunciation that is more an offensive caricaturisation than an accurate representation of an Indian accent. Strangely,though this involves the speaker’s tongue being pushed back into their own throat, it’s the listener who gags.

But with this documentary, Kondabolu has opened up a greater discussion of how Indians and South Asians have been portrayed in Hollywood, how people around the world see Indians as one homogeneous culture and race, and most importantly how we ourselves perpetuate stereotypes between the diverse Indian sub-cultures in our media.

Indians in global media before The Problem with Apu

The earliest portrayal of an Indian in a Hollywood, or rather a non-Indian, film was in a relatively lesser known British film called The Millionairess, starring Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers (who is best known for his character Inspector Clouseau in the original Pink Panther series). Sellers played Ahmed el-Kabir, an Indian doctor treating the main character played by Loren, and donned brownface and partially ‘patanked’ his way through the film. Eight years later, Sellers played the exact same character (portraying a bumbling actor named Hrundi Bakshi) in the Blake Edwards film The Party (the character upon which Azaria loosely based Apu’s portrayal).

 

 

The landscape, however, has changed significantly in the last two decades. Between 1998 and 2001, BBC aired Goodness Gracious Me, a sketch comedy show with an ensemble cast of comedians of Indian origin, which explored the nuances of being Indian outside India. The show was named after a song of the same title from The Millionairess, and was named so because of British parodies of the Indian accent being referred to as a ‘goodness gracious me’ accent. Between 2012 till November this year, Indian-American actor Mindy Kaling helmed and starred in The Mindy Project, which brought a South Asian character into the mainstream without any stereotypes.

After significant criticism being raised about the Apu character, especially in a Huffington Post article by Mallika Rao in 2013 (in which Azaria also voiced his opinions about Apu), The Simpsons introduced Apu’s Indian-American nephew Jay (voiced by Utkarsh Ambudkar, who features in The Problem with Apu and played Mindy’s brother Rishi in The Mindy Project) in the January 2016 episode Much Apu About Something. However, American and British actors of South Asian origin continue to fight to be recognised in the mainstream alongside their white contemporaries.

 

 

Indian culture to non-South Asians

While the portrayal of Indians and South Asians seems to have improved in global media, non-South Asians continue to bear misconceptions about the region. Living in a post-Bush and current Trump world paves the way for most people to see Indians and South Asians exactly how they are portrayed by Sellers and Azaria.

Even if it is laughingly acknowledged as a stereotype, South Asians are still seen as doctors, convenience store–owners, cabbies, and engineers with a shocking lack of social skills (as visible in Kunal Nayyar’s character Rajesh Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory) and often sexually repressed (like Kal Penn’s character Taj Mahal Badalandabad in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder).

The bigger problem is this; seeing India as a homogeneous nation with a singular culture. In this article on The Verge about The Problem with Apu, there is a short but notable statement, Apu’s “origins are blurry, lending the character a monolithic quality and a sense that the writers really didn’t care about getting his heritage right; Apu is at times Bengali, South Indian, possibly Tamil, and Kannadiga”. Indians are merely seen on a skin-deep level and do not seem to be portrayed with more than one dimension, despite an important dimension being the heterogeneity of our culture.

 

All it takes is putting in a little more time and effort to absorb the nuances of a culture before attempting to depict it on screen.

 

As an Indian diaspora attending an Indian school, I didn’t face this cultural ignorance. However, outside of my education, people I interacted with during my time in theatre and in social situations would ask me whether I spoke Indian or Hindustani. The only root for the ignorance was the media being presented to these people, which lacked any kind of nuance or depth in showing the world what Indians were like. It pretty much seemed like Indian (or South Asian) characters were included in an attempt to either exoticise and orientalise a piece of media or simply to make the Indian diaspora just pipe down about representation.

Battling our own stereotype demons

We Indians may point fingers at America and the United Kingdom and accuse them of being racist and conforming to stereotypes, but let’s be honest; we do racism (and casteism, let’s not forget) better than anyone else. It could be our official slogan at this point. It is currently heavily reflected in our politics, in our national news media’s coverage of regional news, and especially in our cinema.

Being a culturally heterogeneous nation, we have cinema in various languages from more different regions than many of us are probably aware of. But, as with all dominant cultural strata, the loudest war has been the one fought for years between the North faction and the South faction over portrayals of one faction in the other’s cinema.

It all (probably) started with the the 1968 Sunil Dutt and Saira Bano starrer Padosan, where the late comedian Mehmood played a South Indian Carnatic music teacher named Master Pillai (possibly the origin of the Madrasi image dearly clung onto by Bollywood fans), who engages a song-off with Sunil Dutt and Kishore Kumar’s characters. Master Pillai is the South Indian stereotype personified, wearing a pin-kudumi (ponytail on a tonsured head) and a pattai (ash smear) across his forehead. Fast-forward to the 21st Century and we see Shahrukh Khan’s character in Ra.One eating noodles with curd, Deepika Padukone’s character in Chennai Express speaking in the most exaggerated and annoying Tamil accent, and Alia Bhatt’s entire existence as a Tamil woman in 2 States.

 

I assumed that the same did not occur in reverse, but to my dismay, it absolutely and unabashedly does, as the first response on this Quora thread shows. North Indians in South Indian cinema speak the respective South Indian language with the thickest ‘Hindi’ accent you have ever heard. It’s like every North Indian in Tamil cinema is assumed to be from the Sowcarpet area. They are almost always the antagonists of the film, like Akashdeep Saigal’s character in Ayan, or often serve as the comic relief who come in scenes that have nothing to do with the development of the film’s plot. And just when you thought you could draw the line, surprise surprise; we stereotype the West too.

 

It’s easy to conclude that it all evens out since we all do it to one another, but just as an eye for an eye makes the world go blind, so does a stereotype for a stereotype. All it takes is putting in a little more time and effort to absorb the nuances of a culture before attempting to depict it on screen.

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