British Columbia

The Problem With Apu: new doc critiques South Asian stereotype

Apu, the Simpsons’ character who owns the famed Kwik-E-Mart, is the focus of a documentary by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, which premiers Sunday.

'If we sit back and do nothing, all we’re going to be left with is Apu,' says filmmaker Kashif Pasta

Apu, the character on The Simpsons who owns the famed Kwik-E-Mart, is the focus of a documentary about race in popular culture. (20th Century Fox)

Apu, the character on The Simpsons TV cartoon who owns the famed Kwik-E-Mart, is the focus of a documentary by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, which premiers this Sunday.

Kondabolu, a self-proclaimed fan of the popular show, created the feature length documentary, The Problem with Apu, to critique the "basic and hacky" stereotype which he said the Apu character promotes about South Asians.

Comedian and filmmaker Hari Kondabolu made documentary, The Problem With Apu, to comment on the media's representation of South Asian characters. (Getty Images)

"Apu was our way into the conversation, but this is about representation in America and I used  my community because I know it well and I used Apu and the Simpsons because it's very recognizable," Kondabolu told Q guest host Ali Hassan Monday.

The Problem with Apu consists of a panel of actors, including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, and Whoopi Goldberg, discussing racism and stererotypes in pop culture.

Kondabolu said characters in the South Asian community are typecast by white directors and producers, noting the Apu character is portrayed by white actor Hank Azaria.

"When you see Hank Azaria doing that voice in person…  without the guise of a cartoon, then all of a sudden it's like that's a white guy making fun of me. It's different all of a sudden, it no longer feels like a character," he said.

'Welcome to Surrey'

The Canadian creators behind the web series, Welcome to Surrey, Kashif Pasta and Shyam Valera confront the same topic with their show, which puts South Asian actors in roles that allow them to accurately represent their community.

They said The Simpsons' Apu character shaped their self-images while growing up, an issue they only recently acknowledged as problematic.

"It's a weird combination of you're simultaneously being represented and erased," Pasta told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

"Rather than South Asians being able to centre themselves, it's still how you're represented through the eyes of someone else and that their opinion of you is more valuable than your actual lived reality."

Views over value

The limited roles for South Asian actors fit into a few stereotypes, Pasta said, typically taxi drivers and store owners, characters with little dimension.

"In terms of representation on screen, it's funny because we may have had that existence of there's lots of different types of brown, and then confronting the reality of the decision makers," Pasta said.

Pasta described the panel Kondabolu assembled in his documentary as "the brown Avengers," people fighting for a more accurate representation of actors of colour in the media.

Pasta and Valera's production company, Dunya Media, strives to change perception, but their focus is not about changing how people view ethnic groups, it's about changing how people see themselves.

"I think what you're starting to see now is people in media… a lot of North American South Asians were like, I've got to start taking charge, and it just took this many years for us to grow up and be able to do that."

"If we sit back and do nothing, all we're going to be left with is Apu."

To hear the full interview with CBC producer Rohit Joseph listen to media below:

To hear Ali Hassan's interview with comedian and filmmaker Hari Kondabolu on Q listen to media here:

With files from On The Coast and Rohit Joseph