We’re Trying Too Hard to Miss the Point about Apu

Pranav Guru
8 min readMay 1, 2022

After years of essentially responding to allegations of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon being an allegedly racist caricature with little other than shrug emojis, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening dispelled any rumors of the character being written off on August 27, 2019.

But despite receiving the all-clear that he could “Thank you, come again”, Apu has been largely relegated to recurring, non-speaking status ever since. This is likely — at least partially — due to voice actor Hank Azaria’s decision to publicly step down from voicing the character less than a year after Groening’s announcement.

Now, before you respond to what I just said, hear me out. I grew up watching The Simpsons. While I feel like the latest installments of the show have seen better days (the best thing I can say if I’m trying to avoid calling the show a shadow of its former self), I never once hated it. Granted, while I felt some of its characters and moments were cringeworthy at times, all was forgiven. Because they somehow always gave me a good laugh.

In fact, I was never even offended while watching Apu as a Gen Z South Asian American (which would seemingly tick all the boxes on the arbitrary checklist for potential trigger warnings).

With that being said, it’s obvious he did cause a problem that transcended The Simpsons. There was a — in the words of comedian Hari Kondabolu — Problem with Apu.

But before we come clean about what the problem with Apu precisely was, we need to break down the historical context of how Hollywood has historically portrayed South Asians.

In 1968 — three years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and two years after becoming a U.S. citizen — Indian American Har Gobind Khorana received the Nobel Prize in Physiology.

Perhaps the first portrayal of an Indian immigrant in American cinema was Peter Sellers’ performance as bumbling Bollywood actor Hrundi V. Bakshi in Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy film The Party. The premise centered on Bakshi being unintentionally invited to a glamorous Hollywood gathering in the U.S., where he struggles to make an impression simply because he is an obvious fish-out-of-water. When an Indian character portraying the fish-out-of-water narrative is, in fact, portrayed by a British actor in brownface, you can probably tell how it’s going to influence western audiences to see South Asians.

After all, next came 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which centered on Harrison Ford’s titular character in India facing off against a cult of thugs aiming to appease the Hindu goddess Kali by performing strange rituals of black magic…including human sacrifice and child slavery.

Prior to Apu’s first appearance — in the 1990 episode “The Telltale Head” during the series’ eighth season — it seemed the only way Hollywood portrayed South Asians was as strange caricatures (such as the aforementioned Indiana Jones sequel). Meanwhile, in the states, the only chance at portrayal would be in brownface (whether it be Peter Sellers in The Party or Fisher Stevens in the Short Circuit movies).

Indiatimes on how stereotypes and changing times have influenced the portrayals of the Indian diaspora in Hollywood.

What has happened in the thirty years since for Indian-American representation? Well, both a lot and very little at the same time.

While I could list what I felt were fictional characters portrayed more positively than Apu and those who portrayed Indian culture as more negatively or stereotypically than Apu, it would just be my opinion at the end of the day. Also, I would be falling down the rabbit hole of making the exact same mistake whenever a conversation about Apu begins.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Apu has become a polarizing character. Any time you start a conversation about him, whether it’s to bury or praise him, criticism is soon to follow.

The downside is, he has spent nearly thirty years portraying stereotypes surrounding Indian Americans, South Asians, and immigrants. But the upside, he’s started a conversation on Hollywood’s problem of swinging and missing when it comes to representing the underrepresented.

Whenever I hear the argument that Apu is being targeted for criticism unfairly since every Simpsons character is supposed to be based on culturally insensitive stereotypes (with the common example being the Scottish-born Groundskeeper Willie), I feel the same argument could be made for Raj Koothrappali from CBS’s long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory. After all, Raj is a nerdy Indian immigrant who hangs out mostly with nerdy white Americans.

However, the counter-argument to that would be that the mostly-American audience would be able to realize that the white characters are playing off stereotypes since they are far more likely to see everyday white Americans in their day-to-day life. But if the first time you saw a South Asian was Apu or Raj and the second time was your classmate or your colleague, what would be your first expectation of the first thing he or she would say?

This June 2018 BuzzFeed segment featured Indian immigrants reacting to various film and TV characters (including Apu). They discussed the slow improvement in the portrayal of stereotypes overtime.

Another argument made in defense of Apu is that there is some truth in what he portrays about not only Indian people, but immigrants in general. But that’s what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussed in her iconic TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”. To quote; “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

For years and years, Apu was the only recurring Indian character on American television. So his one story became the only story, creating a narrative that alleged that all South Asian Americans weren’t traditionally attractive, owned convenience stores, spoke with “fresh off the boat” accents, and could never properly assimilate to American culture.

While Apu himself never presented a problem for me as I grew up a first-generation American, the narrative he created about South Asians did. While I was never called “Apu”, I can’t say the same about the names “Baljeet” (like the Phineas and Ferb character) or “Ravi” (from Disney Channel’s Jessie and its spin-off Bunk’d) or “Chirag” (from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise).

And that doesn’t even include the random quips I would receive about Spelling Bees or how I “smell like curry” (sometimes in an over-the-top accent).

But when all’s said and done, I’m not going to let unfortunately having to deal with stereotypes and microaggressions during my childhood influence my ability to make a nuanced judgment of the impact of Apu.

After all, society is missing the same exact thing now that Hollywood was missing for years: Nuance.

In our hunt for convenience, we as a society have resorted to labeling people without even hearing their side. Our minds portray those unlike us the same way a team of white American TV producers portrayed Apu. To paraphrase Hanlon’s razor, it does not deserve to be attributed to malice when it can be adequately explained by ignorance.

Celebrated Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj has been open throughout his career on the impact that topics like politics and racism have on comedy culture, in quotes like this one.

Especially on the issue of race, we’ve become oversensitive to pet causes on both sides of the political aisle. Whenever we feel our culture is under attack, we take it up as a pet cause without even taking a moment to adequately review the evidence at hand. For example, many criticized the music videos of Major Lazer’s 2015 hit song “Lean On” and Coldplay’s 2016 hit song “Hymn for the Weekend” for allegedly appropriating Indian culture. Personally, having seen them, I felt that — especially considering that music videos aren’t exactly the best way to express a whole nation’s culture — the set designs and costumes were done nicely. While the choreography seemed to lack any basis in traditional Indian dance, it’s ultimately not fair to quickly call out all non-Indian people wearing traditional Indian clothing for “cultural appropriation”.

These bring up another point of discussion: How do Americans view South Asians?

There’s no simple answer, because it’s evolved. Also, because its evolution has been influenced by how changing times have also changed the marketability of a product (the product being a movie or a TV show).

But the best part? The recent stage of evolution? It finally. Involves. Nuance.

With more and more people of Indian origin finding their voices in international art and content creation, we’re getting to see a new generation of Americans of Indian descent on screen.

From stand-up comedians getting their own one-man shows on Netflix to TV characters that speak in the same accent as those around them, the narrative of “we may look different than you, but we really aren’t” is truly taking root and becoming mainstream.

In 2018, comedian Rajiv Satyal added another installment of his “The Year in Indians” YouTube series to highlight the Indian diaspora’s achievement in American culture (particularly entertainment and even politics).

Not only does it bring me optimism for the future, but it’s somewhat personal as well. One of my biggest hobbies growing up was performing stand-up comedy. Just like the comedians of Indian origin we see on Netflix today, I had no foreign accent. I didn’t have any jokes about Apu planned for the annual school variety show or local open mic. While I did insert a quip every now and then about India or arranged marriages or being academically focused since I knew it would give the audience a giggle, I knew it would make them laugh just as much to talk about celebrity gossip or the news headlines or my beloved Chicago sports teams.

I spent years doing as Chimamanda Adichie said: Telling a complete story rather than a single one. That involves having faith in your audience. Faith that while they will be entertained not only by stereotypes, but by the nuance of the story told by their literal classmate and neighbor who just happened to have a different skin tone.

As I said before, I never hated Apu. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I legitimately hated anything.

From Apu came better things. From the films Bend It Like Beckham and Lion to TV shows such as The Mindy Project and Master of None, it’s safe to say Apu was the very inspiration that lit the fire under the belly of the Indian diaspora. Giving us the message that when it comes to representation, we deserve better.

The release of Kondabolu’s 2017 truTV documentary The Problem with Apu led to allegations that Apu would be written off the show. This — in turn, as expected — led to both sides of the aisle breaking down into chaos and accusing the other side with the most heinous nicknames possible…as well as many not-so-funny memes.

Perhaps the most rational voice has been arguably ignored in this whole scrum for an answer, and that has been the voice of Apu all along (Hank Azaria himself). In an April 2018 interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Azaria stated that he was willing to step down from voicing the character, adding, “I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers’ room, genuinely informing whichever direction this character takes.” Although Azaria reached a mutual agreement with the show’s producers to resign from the role in 2020, the character hasn’t been recast since.

So while I agree with Hari Kondabolu that there is a problem with Apu, I also agree with fellow Indian American comedian Akaash Singh and his whole 2022 standup special dedicated to “Bring Back Apu”. Apu’s negative impact shouldn’t negate his positive impact, and his one-dimensional portrayal of what it means to be an Indian immigrant shouldn’t take away from the fact that he always seemed like a smart, nice character who cared about the people around him.

Maybe just take some time to find and cast the right guy to voice him this time?