Yes, mocking Indian accents is racist

November 22, 2017

Hari Kondabolu's documentary The Problem With Apu both exposes racism against South Asians and reflects a growing confidence to fight it, writes Pranav Jani.

THE PROBLEM with Apu, the new documentary by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, does all the things it is supposed to do. Brilliantly.

The film offers a political critique of one of modern U.S. culture's best-known racist caricatures: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Kwik-E-Mart clerk from The Simpsons. Like most of Konadabolu's comedy routines and even tweets, his look at Apu's impact on South Asian Americans makes you crack up in the process, get angry and then crack up again.

What I didn't expect from watching The Problem with Apu was to be deeply moved, and to feel hope for the future of South Asians in this country--even in this Trumpian age of ramped up anti-immigrant racism, Islamophobia and the violent targeting of South Asian Americans.

South Asian Americans in their mid-40s like me don't expect to see our lives and concerns given any mainstream visibility, unless they fit the narrative of "exotic Asians," "foreign terrorists," or well-behaved "model minorities."

Something has changed for the better. Like Valarie Kaur's film Divided We Fall, Zarqa Nawaz's Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, Aziz Ansari's Master of None and Aasif Mandvi's Halal in the Family, The Problem of Apu will give South Asian youth a framework to resist these racist representations of themselves in movies, TV shows, video games, music and more--and to question stereotypical portrayals in the news.

Hari Kondabolu
Hari Kondabolu

Growing up in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, when the wave of late-1960s radicalization was replaced by the ethnocentrism of the Reagan era, we never had this sort of public space for talking about our experiences and issues. Not to speak of a successful comedian like Hari Kondabolu.

Ten years older than Kondabolu, I never had such a problem with Apu. But then again, Apu had ancestors.

When Gandhi beat out E.T. for Best Picture in 1983, I discovered that somehow "Gandhi" could be used as a racist slur. A year later came Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a piece of racist colonial filth that popularized the idea that Indians eat monkey brains and pray to murderous goddesses.

With Apu, The Simpsons gave a twist to the open bigotry of Indiana Jones. Racism is now served with a dose of irony. The show's creators and viewers know exactly which lines they are crossing, and derive transgressive pleasure from the audience's ability to laugh at their own racism.

The central message of The Problem with Apu is a rejection of this conceit. Ironic, post-racism is just plain old racism, all dressed up, and if The Simpsons has gotten away with it, that's because its target is a vulnerable population: first-generation immigrants.

As a popular show with a broad reach at a time when television was dominated by a few channels, The Simpsons created a powerful stereotype--armed with an accented catchphrase ("Thank you, come again!")--that erased the history and culture of a people who are severely underrepresented in the U.S. mainstream. Apu became part of the day-to-day racism faced by South Asian kids and adults.

THE PROBLEM with Apu develops a collective critique of The Simpsons and other racist representations through interviews with a number of actors, comedians and celebrities--mostly people of color and mostly South Asian.

The Black comedian W. Kamau Bell, Kondabolu's colleague and mentor, is a steady presence in the film. In fact, the documentary's origins lie in a 2012 episode of Bell's show Totally Biased, where Kondabolu said Apu sounded like "a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father."

This take is shared and expanded upon by many of the comedians and cultural workers interviewed in the film. Kondabolu discusses with a host of South Asians of different generations--comedians like Aasif Mandvi and Aziz Ansari, actors like Sakina Jaffrey, Kal Penn and Utkarsh Ambudkar, even former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy--how Apu is nothing less than an open mockery of first-generation Indian immigrants, their occupations and their accents.

The second-generation interviewees are mostly angry on behalf of their parents, whose rich experiences, they feel, are completely dismissed by The Simpsons.

Digging into the character's name, Kondabolu shows other forms of erasure. "Nahasapeemapetilon," as anyone who knows a South Asian language can guess, is a nonsensical creation meant to poke fun at the length of some South Asian names. But what Kondabolu finds out about the character's first name, "Apu," is devastating.

The show's creator Matt Groening named the character after the protagonist of the Apu trilogy: cutting-edge films of the 1950s by globally renowned Indian director Satyajit Ray. The trilogy depicts the childhood and adolescence of a young boy experiencing personal hardship and suffering as he navigates the changing landscapes of early 20th century India.

If you said the term "Apu trilogy" today, would Americans think of Satyajit Ray's masterpieces? No, almost all of them would imagine a series of dreadful Simpsons spinoffs.

The fact that Apu's exaggerated accent is performed by white actor Hank Azaria only exacerbates The Simpsons' cynical use of the character. While there is some debate in the movie over whether Azaria is to blame for the accent, Kondabolu shows evidence that Azaria took leadership in creating the character and was fully supported by the show's white director and producers.

Kondabolu includes a video clip of Azaria "doing the accent" in a 2016 speech at the Tufts University graduation ceremony that is appalling--as is the interview snippet in which Azaria openly admits his disdain for a local Pakistani convenient store clerk whose accent he seems to have copied.

ONE OF the movie's strengths is that it goes beyond simply analyzing the impact of Apu to trickier questions--from internalized racism among second-generation South Asian Americans to disagreements among them over what is fair game for mockery.

Kondabolu's tremendous patience as an interviewer allows him to ask provocative questions. After discussing with South Asian actors the problems they face being pigeonholed into particular characters and asked to perform accents, Kondabolu asks them if they ever took roles they regretted, knowing they would be used for cheap, racist laughs.

The answers provide a look into the difficult choices for South Asian actors--as well as their various explanations for taking self-stereotyping roles. As Sakina Jaffrey, one of the few women featured in the film, recalls: "I had a bread-and-butter role that I did for years, which was the weeping ethnic mom of potential rapists or murderers: [in accented voice] 'It is a mother's duty to protect her son!'"

Getting one's foot in the door involves painful compromises. But what about when South Asians themselves choose such roles?

Kondabolu puts himself under scrutiny by showing cringe-worthy bits in his early comedy routines that used Indian accents in order to help him stand out as a comic. Then there's South Asian-Canadian comedian Russell Peters--often criticized for his use of the accent--who sees nothing wrong with it.

South Asians have debated our relationship with “Indian” accents time and time again. But we are always aware of how the accent is used to normalize racist attitudes against our parents and friends.

Dana Gould, a white comedian and Simpsons writer, demonstrates this when he flatly tells Kondabolu, "There are accents that by their nature, to white Americans... sound funny."

KONDABOLU UNPACKS why Gould and many others find humor in racist caricatures of South Asians by linking Apu to the wretched history of Blackface and minstrel shows.

It's a powerful comparison because it conveys via analogy to a mainstream audience that what was wrong in representations of Black people is wrong when it comes to South Asians and immigrants as well. And the film includes movie clips to show that Brownface, too, has a history.

But African Americans and South Asian Americans also have very different histories and different resulting stereotypes. The Problem with Apu misses an opportunity to introduce a new audience to the long history of racism against South Asians in particular and Asian Americans and immigrant communities in general, going back to the 1893 World’s Fair and Thomas Edison’s 1902 film Hindoo Fakir.

Imperialism and the divide-and-conquer strategies of immigrant-bashing have always fueled American racist ideologies in this country, and Asian Americans have been scapegoated continuously for over a century.

From restrictions on Chinese labor in the late 19th century to the denial of citizenship to Asians in the early 20th century, to the Japanese internment during World War II, to post-9/11 detainment, deportation and murder of Muslims and "Muslim-looking" people, this country has eagerly wanted our labor, but not our lives.

But while Kondabolu doesn't explain the historical factors that have created the caricatures, he does show how his own performances changed in response to the world around him.

It was the experience of 9/11 and the racist scapegoating in its aftermath that led Kondabolu to stop exploiting the accent in his shows, and to instead tie together his comedic skills, political sensibilities and sheer sincerity in calling out racism and bigotry.

More and more, second-generation South Asian American cultural figures are unafraid to use their new visibility to demonstrate the harm of casual racism in culture. Activists like NYC Taxi Workers Alliance's Bhairavi Desai and civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta have helped chart out new roles for South Asians Americans fighting political injustice.

That's where the hope lies--and for contributing to this hope, The Problem with Apu is an important achievement.

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