Tom Slater

What’s the problem with Apu?

What's the problem with Apu?
(Credit: Fox)
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Remember Apu, the kindly Indian shopkeeper from The Simpsons? Well, in the time since most people have stopped watching that 32-year-old show, past its prime for at least two of its three decades, the world has come around to deciding that he is actually a really racist character, perhaps even a 2D agent of white supremacy.

If you’ve missed this particular culture-war controversy, I envy you. It is among the most ridiculous, and protracted, of recent years. It started with The Problem With Apu, a 2017 documentary made by American comedian Hari Kondabolu. Kondabolu is of Indian heritage, and despite liking The Simpsons as a kid, he has come to think of Apu as a work of racist ‘brownface’, given the character was voiced by white guy Hank Azaria using a broad, stereotypical accent.

That this documentary, devoted to a successful man in his thirties airing his hurt feelings about a cartoon character, was ever even made is a depressing sign of our offence-obsessed times. That its arguments have been taken so seriously since, even more so. 

At first Azaria and the show’s creators tried to brush off the criticisms, but eventually they just gave in. After speculation the character would be dropped, Azaria announced he would just be stepping back from it – clearing the way, presumably, for someone of Indian descent.

In a recent podcast interview, Azaria sounded like a man fresh from the re-education camp. He says he spent a year after the controversy ‘doing the work’ -- that is, he ‘read, spoke to people who knew a lot about racism, spoke to lots of Indian people and went to seminars’. 

He now believes the show contributed to ‘structural racism’ and ‘feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologise’. He even apologised directly to one of the podcast’s hosts, who happens to be Indian American, during the interview.

The woke cultural revolution that took place last summer, that bizarre period where some people seemed to think that getting rid of Uncle Ben was a useful response to the killing of George Floyd, inevitably hit the cartoon world, too. A number of white voice actors announced they would no longer play non-white characters – even where the ethnicities of their characters were largely incidental. Simpsons star Harry Shearer, for instance, recently stepped down from voicing the character of Dr Hibbert, the African-American doctor whose defining character trait is chuckling at inappropriate moments.

But there is still something strange about the singling out of Apu, given many other Simpsons characters are also immigrant stereotypes with bad accents. Just take Groundskeeper Willie, the ginger, monobrowed, kilt-wearing Scot. Cartoons deal in broad brush strokes. Indeed, even if someone of an Indian background had played Apu, they’d probably have hammed it up a bit. The main character in this show, let’s not forget, is a white working-class slob. Apu, meanwhile, is among the most fleshed-out, amiable and intelligent background characters in the show.

While Kondabolu’s documentary brought together an impressive array of actors and celebrities who were upset about Apu, I genuinely struggle to believe that your average Indian American remotely cares about all this – particularly those old enough not to have been raised in America’s increasingly bizarre victimhood culture. I guess we’ll find out when Hank Azaria sets about his apology tour of every single Indian home in the country…

Yes, standards and tastes change. What was acceptable 30 years ago is often not acceptable today for very good reasons. But there was arguably something more progressive, and certainly less uptight, about a culture that didn’t encourage us to take offence so easily, in which we could poke fun at our differences rather than be so neurotically obsessed by them. In 2021, Apu does indeed feel like a relic from another era, but it’s an era from which we could learn a thing or two.