The massive popularity of “The Simpsons” means the racist stereotypes written into its character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a South Asian convenience store owner, have permeated American culture.
“The Problem with Apu,” a documentary starring comedian Hari Kondabolu, builds upon critiques of Apu to examine limited South Asian representation in Hollywood, as well as the real-world impacts such stereotypes can have. Students will have a chance to engage with larger themes of cinematic racism and prejudice at Tuesday’s screening of the documentary, which will be followed by a Q&A with Kondabolu.
Kondabolu’s work can serve as an educational and inspirational tool for students aspiring to enter the film industry, said Shayan Saalabi, a third-year English student and the co-director of the Campus Events Commission’s films program. His message, along with the national attention the film has garnered, were both reasons why CEC worked to bring Kondabolu to campus, Saalabi said.
“UCLA is a pretty progressive community of entertainers and someone like (Kondabolu) who’s kind of really pushing back on this institutionalized racism within entertainment is someone worth hearing,” Saalabi said.
Kondabolu said he first came up with the idea for the documentary after performing a piece about South Asian representation for the stand-up comedy show, “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.” After the piece aired, Kondabolu said he realized how much the issue resonated with the South Asian community – many people shared stories of having to imitate Apu’s overexaggerated accent for auditions or being called ‘Apu’ during their childhood. Kondabolu felt the film was timely, given the national conversation surrounding equal representation in film.
“’The Simpsons’ is both history and the present, it’s the past and the present because it’s a sample of what 30 years ago was and at the same time, it’s current, so it felt like the right time to make it,” Kondabolu said.
Apu’s character has accumulated criticism for a variety of reasons, as explained within the documentary. Despite his purported Indian heritage, he’s voiced by white actor Hank Azaria – something some have argued is a form of brownface or minstrelsy. The film also analyzes how Apu falls into many stereotypical tropes, such as the fact that he has a thick accent and is a convenience store owner. While Hollywood has many other examples of problematic South Asian representation, Apu embodies many of the issues that plague the industry, Kondabolu said.
After its 2017 release, “The Problem With Apu” generated a discussion in the media, with both positive and negative reactions. While Kondabolu was heartened by enthusiastic engagement from many high school and college students, he said many people began to argue about the film without actually watching it, ultimately missing the larger point he was trying to illustrate. Kondabolu said viewers who walked into the movie with preconceived notions about political correctness or viewed the documentary as ‘ruining their childhood’ were unlikely to connect with the film.
“If you watch it (open-mindedly), you can’t help but sympathize with what it’s like to be a young person and (be) picked on,” Kondabolu said. “You have to be willing to actually hear the story and then judge it for yourself.”
The way in which the film brings in Apu’s real-world impact is an example of lunchbox politics, said Sanjana Nidugondi, a fourth-year anthropology student and the director of cultural and social affairs for the Asian Pacific Coalition, one of the campus organizations involved with the event. Lunchbox politics refer specifically to the way that representation is indicative of other, deeply rooted issues that marginalized communities face, she said. Nidugondi said she hopes the screening will be able to help viewers connect political issues with art, particularly because the event takes place in the middle of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
“Representation is just the surface of many, many deep systematic issues that a lot of marginalized communities face,” Nidugondi said. “It’s these inappropriate, inaccurate stereotypes of marginalized communities on television, but it’s still stereotypes that … for other communities, lead to higher rates of incarceration and reinforces systematic oppression.”
Kondabolu said he hopes the screening will help students realize not only the way in which representation connects with other political issues, but also how the entertainment system works in an exclusionary way and how students specifically can effect change. Everything that appears on screen within any product of the industry is a deliberate choice – who’s being hired on screen, who’s in the writer’s room and who is an executive, Kondabolu said.
“I want people to see the obstacles that are in place,” Kondabolu said. “And if you’re in a position of power, what you can do to eliminate some of those obstacles – how you tell a fairer story, why does that matter, who has control.”