Tom Slater Tom Slater

What’s the problem with Apu?

(Credit: Fox)

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. 

There is something strange about the singling out of Apu

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’.

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