Entertainment

The White Guy Who Played Apu on ‘The Simpsons’ Is Now Apologising to All Indians

Thank you, don’t come again.
SJ
Mumbai, IN
April 14, 2021, 11:49am
apu hank azaria apologises to all Indians
Photo: Still taken from The Simpsons on Disney+

Back in the mid 2000s, I remember how the animated sitcom The Simpsons that aired at 7PM every night on Indian television was my introduction to the world of satirical adult cartoons. And while the show introduced me to many things—cynicism, dark humour and D’oh!—it was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon or simply Apu, the show’s Indian-origin character who owned a convenience store called Kwik E-Mart and embodied the catchphrase “Thank you, come again”, that stood out for me. 

It was through the lens of Apu that I learnt about the existence of octuplets, the fact that India apparently has seven million people in one college, and first heard a sing-song accent I’d literally never heard anyone around me in India use when speaking in English. Though Apu was a token representation of a minority group from my own country, there was nothing about him I found relatable. Even though he was merely a caricature—like all the other characters on the show—something about his stereotypical pot belly, accent and lifestyle made me feel uncomfortable and stupid, as opposed to Americans who applauded Homer for being hilariously satirical instead of offensive. 

Now, nearly 30 years since the show first aired, Hank Azaria, the white actor who voiced Apu, has apologised to “every single Indian person” for his problematic portrayal of the Indian character. Speaking on a podcast called the Armchair Expert hosted by actor Dax Shepard and Indian-American actor Monica Padman, Azaria admitted that though he wanted to believe the show’s premise had the best intentions, it contributed to the “structural racism” in the U.S. “I apologise for my part in creating that and participating in that,” he said. “Part of me feels I need to go round to every single Indian person in this country and apologise.”

While Azaria voiced the Indian character from the show’s inception in 1989, he gave up the role in January 2020 in the face of criticism around racial stereotyping. “I really didn’t know any better,” he said. “I didn’t think about it. I was unaware how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens.”

Criticism around Azaria’s portrayal blew up in the wake of a 2017 documentary called “The Problem with Apu”, which was made by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu. In this documentary, which was a look at how western culture depicts Asian communities, Indian-origin actors and comedians like Kal Penn and Aziz Ansari spoke about how Apu’s accent and disposition was often used to bully them, or propagate problematic stereotypes. Following this film, even actor Priyanka Chopra, who’s probably the whitest brown person in Hollywood, called Apu the “bane of my life growing up”, opening up about how the racially insensitive character misrepresented Indians all over the world. 

This forced The Simpsons to scrutinise their problematic portrayal of minorities, leading to them releasing an episode called “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” where Marge Simpson discovers that an old fairytale book she read as a child is now problematic. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” said Lisa Simpson at the end of the episode, before turning to face a framed photo of Apu that said “Don’t have a cow, man!” 

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Despite the widespread criticism that was heaped onto Apu, some Indians have argued that Apu wasn’t meant to be a racist portrayal, but rather a lighthearted punchline in keeping with the show’s ethos of not taking things too seriously. They felt that since The Simpsons was a satirical caricature that highlighted the worst of human tendencies, it wasn’t fair to single out Apu when characters like Homer Simpson were also equally stereotyped as greedy, white bimbos. Others pointed out that Apu was a representation of Indian immigrants who came to America in the 60s and 70s, didn’t speak the language too well, and didn’t have the economic power or agency to avoid being stereotyped. 

Azaria’s apology has now prompted a mixed reaction on social media. While some feel that Azaria has nothing to apologise for, given that he merely voiced the character that was already written, others feel his public apology is too little too late, and just an attempt to earn some woke points. 

Still, given that Apu was one of the first Indian characters to blow up on American television, he also probably prompted other problematic portrayals, such as the Indian who eats monkey brains in Indiana Jones, white actor Fisher Stevens playing an Indian scientist sporting brownface and a similarly sing-song accent in 1988 sci-fi film Short Circuit 2, and even a Popchips commercial in 2013 that featured Ashton Kutcher in brownface. It was also especially irksome for Indian immigrants, who played a major role in contributing $2 trillion to the U.S. economy, to constantly see themselves portrayed simply as taxi drivers, convenience store owners or doctors. And Apu, with his mocking accent, extra chest hair, cookie cutter engineering degree and arranged marriage, propagated the very traditions that many Indian immigrants were trying to escape when they came to the U.S. 

Following Azaria’s apology, Kondabolu tweeted that the actor was “kind and thoughtful”, and had proved that “people are not simply ‘products of their time’ but have the ability to learn and grow”. Azaria’s admission also comes in the aftermath of a wave of violent attacks on America’s Asian communities and protests against racial profiling and injustice. 

Earlier this year, Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, spoke about how the show was striving for inclusivity, after he announced last year that non-white characters would no longer be voiced by white actors. However, he added that Apu was never meant to be an offensive stereotype. “All of our actors play dozens of characters each, it was never designed to exclude anyone,” he said in a BBC interview.

But you’d think a show that has had an eerie ability to predict the future would’ve known that the problematic portrayal of Apu was a punchline that wouldn’t age well. 

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