Growing up as the only Jew on campus from elementary school to senior year, I dealt with anti-Semitism on a somewhat regular basis. Granted, I wasn’t barraged with swastika graffiti or called a kike every day (except for that heightened period in 2006 when “Borat” laid his Jew eggs), but every so often some gentile bully would found out about my Sandy Koufax commonality and make my life a monotheistic hell. When feeling blue, us adolescent members of the tribe could turn to Jewish stars like Mr. Seinfeld for some much needed yada-yada pride, or we would recite every namesake in Mr. Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” including Rod Carew (he converted.)
But as Hari Kondabolu shows in “The Problem with Apu,” is that when children of Indian descent were bullied in the states, it was often because of the only famous person or place they could seek cultural sanctuary: Among the malfunctioning Squishee machines and week-old hot dogs of Apu’s Kwik-e-Mart.
“The Problem with Apu” would be more appropriate if titled, “The damaging, racist effects of a sloppy Indian caricature birthed from Hollywood’s penchants for stereotypes and protected by its creators fast denials of wrongdoing.” Of course, if the name was that long people wouldn’t be able to tweet about it, but that latter title gets to the root of what makes this imaginary, seemingly harmless character so dangerous.
Back in 1989, “The Simpsons” premiered on FOX, and as the series grew, one of the touchstone characters became the Indian-born convenience store clerk, Apu. “Simpsons” staffers give contradicting testimonies of how Apu came to be, but the clear verdict is that voice actor Hank Azaria made a funny Indian impression in a writer’s room one day, birthing the 7-Eleven essence that is Apu. At the time in American pop culture, Indian actors were in short supply, and those that did book occasional roles often portrayed one-note characters who skewered the food, faces and culture of their native homeland. (Kal Penn played a character named Taj Mahal in “Van Wilder,” which is sort of like an American playing a character named White House in a foreign film). But the single most prominent Indian presence in Hollywood was not an actual Indian person, but an accented, animated character voiced by a white guy.
Kondabolu’s thesis is defended by a horde of prominent Southeast Asian actors and celebrities like Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Sakina Jaffrey, and Aparna Nancherla. The comedian even speaks to Whoopi Goldberg, who compares the depiction of Apu to the racist minstrel shows of early Hollywood, and “Simpsons” writer Dana Gould, who unenthusiastically discusses the difficulty and complexity of writing for a TV show. Much of the documentary depicts Kondabolu’s efforts to reach Hank Azaria, who never ends up providing thoughts about his seminal character. But there’s an aura of colorful energy sprinkled with occasional humor that always drives the yellow doc forward.
Kondabolu makes a compelling argument, but that doesn’t stop “The Problem with Apu” from having some problems of its own. The film never really finds a noteworthy person not associated with “The Simpsons” who is on Apu’s side to give their take, although it’s completely possible that no such person exists (or is at least willing to talk). Kondabolu successfully articulates his personal frustrations with Apu and Apu’s effect on society as a whole, but never really provides something of what he thinks will be an appropriate solution (not that it’s his responsibility to.) One wonders if Hank Azaria did appear on the doc and provided some sort of intelligent explanation or meaningful apology, if Kondabolu would consider the issue solved. But there’s a sense that if Azaria did appear, whatever he said would have been the wrong thing.
When Kondabulu talks with “Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar, the actor reminisces about a suggestion he gave to “Simpsons” creatives while on the show, how his character should call out Apu for sounding like a white man doing a bad Indian impression, which would then cut to a real-life Hank Azaria looking stunned. Kondabolu is enthusiastic about Ambudkar’s suggestion, saying “that would solve the whole thing!” But Kondabolu’s statement here reflects the idea that the Apu dilemma is something that can be solved with a few cleverly-worded lines or a funny gag. The filmmaker’s enthusiasm for Ambudkar’s idea technically supports his thesis but also weakens one of Kondabolu’s best ideas: that Southeast Asians and non-whites at large have no control over how they’re portrayed in the media. It’s a Springfield Catch-22: If “Simpsons” brass said yes to Ambudkar, they as decision makers still have all the power to portray Apu however they want, even with Ambudkar’s voice being heard. And if they said no, well, here we are.
“The Problem with Apu,” though, is noteworthy for exposing a specific issue that has lied dormant for about 30 years, and for Kondabolu’s meticulous research into the more general idea that Hollywood and racism mesh together like Patty and Selma. But the documentary is most memorable not providing a firm answer on how the character should be addressed, with every proposed solution offers more problems of its own. “The Problem with Apu” reflects the truth that as our society advances and evolves and looks back at the past with the newfound clarity that something was wrong, our ability to fix it or even assign the people to fix it may not have evolved at the same pace.