Apu in 'The Simpsons': Is everyone overreacting over the racial stereotype?
White actor Hank Azaria is taking a step back from his portrayal of the Indian shopkeeper
Think of Apu, the much-loved Indian character on The Simpsons, and a few things are bound to come to mind: his over-the-top accent, his job at the Kwik-E-Mart, his arranged marriage, his numerous children and his famous catchphrase “thank you, come again”. In the yellow-skinned world of Springfield, Apu was the only one filling the diversity quota that audiences today expect – but it has come at a cost.
The character, who was introduced in the first season of the show in 1990, has been dogged by controversy over the years for fulfilling a racial stereotype.
In 2017, the controversy was once again brought into the limelight when American comedian Hari Kondabolu, who is of Indian heritage, released the documentary The Problem with Apu. The film, which features other South Asian-American entertainers like Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn and Hasan Minhan, makes the case that Apu provided fodder for those bullying Indians and Asians in America.
In light of constant controversy, especially from the Indian-American community, Hank Azaria, who voices Apu and has won Emmys for his role on the show, has expressed concern. “The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad,” he said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2018. “It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring joy and laughter to people.”
On Friday, January 17, 2020, Azaria made headlines again as he announced that he would be stepping away from the character. “I won’t be doing the voice anymore, unless there’s some way to transition it or something,” the actor, who also voices The Simpsons characters Moe Szyslak and Chief Wiggum, reportedly told website SlashFilm.
Those familiar with Apu are, no doubt, aware of the cliches he represents. The character started out as an illegal immigrant in America, is vegan and has a cousin working at a service centre in India. Even his surname, Nahasapeemapetilon, is a tongue twister that would frustrate most Indians.
But as the fate of the character hangs in the balance, one can only wonder whether the Internet outrage is warranted. For years, sitcoms have used stereotypes for comedic effect – who can forget Bangladeshi taxi driver Ranjit (with his typical accent and arranged marriage) in How I met Your Mother? In The Big Bang Theory, Raj is such an exaggerated Indian stereotype that he wasn’t able to talk to women without medication until season six. Meanwhile, Modern Family is not above making “over-performing Asian” jokes at Lily’s expense or taking at dig at Gloria’s Colombian accent.
While the portrayal of Asian characters onscreen can be troubling, TV series-makers and actors need to figure out how to bring them into the modern age instead of abandoning or scrapping them altogether. In the case of The Simpsons, the producers did try to make amends; the episode Much Apu About Something, released in 2016, introduced Jamshed (who goes by Jay), who chides his uncle for being a stereotype. It takes a lot for a show to accept its flaws, make fun of itself, acknowledge its typecasting and educate audiences on the same.
That being said, Azaria stepping down (if he is indeed serious about it) may give the show an opportunity to represent the Indian community in a more progressive way, perhaps by getting an actual Indian voice actor for the role. After 30 years of voicing Apu, Azaria will no doubt be missed, but here’s to seeing more of Apu on screens, eliciting laughter, hopefully in a less offensive manner. To paraphrase the beloved character: thank you, we do hope you come again.
Updated: January 23, 2020 12:33 PM