Day 6

'This is the life that I grew up with': Why The Simpsons' Apu is more than a stereotype

South Asian-American TV producer Amar Shah says there's more to Apu than meets the eye.

Amar Shah says Apu's character resonates because his father was also an immigrant business owner

A poster with The Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is displayed on the window of a 7-Eleven convenience store in Burbank, California. The depiction of Apu has been the centre of criticism recently. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

The character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has been a mainstay on the The Simpsons for decades. But lately, the show has been criticized for its depiction of him as a heavily accented South Asian-American who owns a convenience store. 

Last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called The Problem with Apu, which used the character as a jumping point to look at the stereotyping of South Asian-Americans in Hollywood. One of Kondabolu's issues with Apu is that he is voiced by Hank Azaria, who is white. 

This week, The Simpsons acknowledged the controversy around Apu in an episode of the show. But it wasn't an apology. Instead, the show's precocious character Lisa dismissed the complaints as political correctness. 

Since the episode aired on Sunday, many viewers have responded with howls of outrage. But Amar Shah, a TV producer in Orlando, thinks there's still room for a nuanced view of Apu. This week, he took to Twitter to share his own story of growing up as a South Asian-American whose own father owned a convenience store and gas station among other businesses.

Shah says he first saw Apu on TV when he was around 10 years old. As years went on, he started building a sense of kinship with the character. Here's what he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury:

Amar Shah's father owned gas stations. (Amar Shah via Twitter)

Brent Bambury: Growing up, did people call you 'Apu' because they thought it was funny?

Amar Shah: Oh absolutely. I can't tell you how many times I heard the accent and the quotes. But let me tell you, growing up in the south, I've heard a lot worse. There was a part of me that embraced certain parts of Apu, and it wasn't the accent or the exaggerated characteristics, it was the humanity. Because I lived that gas station life for all those years, it was easy for me to see what were the realistic things about the character and what were the more exaggerated qualities as well.

The Kwik-E-Mart is kind of held up as a contemptible place in The Simpsons. But in your gas station life — as you called it — you saw something rich. Can you describe that for us?

Gas stations and convenience stores were my second home. I spent many afternoons, and many longer weekend days, in the store, in the cooler, in my dad's office, and behind the register. Getting the opportunity to work the register was always one of the goals of mine when I was a kid. But I was never skilled enough, [or] old enough, to do so.

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is shown during a scene in The Simpsons. (Animation on Fox/YouTube)

In Hari's documentary, a number of the people that he interviewed said that Apu is a mockery of their fathers. Your dad actually ran a grocery store. He actually had that life. Did you ever think that Apu was a mockery of him?

No, but I will tell you what ... I've known Hari for many years. I have always been a fan of his. And I think being a fan of someone also allows you to be insightful and [say] where you think there were holes. People like my dad were never in the film showcased, and that's where I thought there was a hole potentially in the entire documentary.

When it comes to Apu and the mockery, I can totally understand [why] other people felt that they were lampooning them or their cultures. But for me, this is the life that I grew up with. These are the stories, these are the people that I knew. This is so nuanced for me that I see both sides.

In The Simpsons, Apu is portrayed as an entrepreneur. How does that speak to your own experience growing up as an immigrant in an entrepreneurial system among other immigrants in your community who chose that life?

Look, I grew up in the gas station world. I grew up with friends who were in the hotel, motel world. There's a reason why they call it the Patel Motel Cartel. There were just certain industries in the late '80s and early '90s that were filled up by Indian immigrants and these were skilled people like my dad, who had engineering degrees or had professional degrees, who simply wanted to challenge their entrepreneurial selves. So for me, Apu is a great entrepreneur. That's another thing that I embrace about the character. Here was someone who essentially stood on his own and helped build the foundation for him and for his family.

Apu, to me, started off as a type and as the years progressed, the character became more nuanced.- Amar Shah, TV producer

But in 1989, when The Simpsons first went on air, there were not very many South Asian people represented on network television. So Apu bears the burden of standing in as a representation of all South Asians and he's voiced by a white guy. What do you think of that? How do you negotiate that?

I can't in some ways. I think Hank Azaria is an incredibly talented guy. Do I think he needs to be the voice of Apu still? No. But I also understand that in 1989 [and] 1990, things were different and things are always getting progressively better. There's a part of me that agrees with Hari. I'm not necessarily a fan of a white guy voicing an Indian character. But Apu, to me, started off as a type and as the years progressed, the character became more nuanced. I think his story arc developed and I think people saw the humanity that went way past the type.

So what did you make of the way that The Simpsons responded to Hari's criticism of Apu's character?

I thought The Simpsons' response to Hari was very lukewarm. It was tepid. It could have been a lot more insightful and well-rounded. I honestly feel that they didn't necessarily know how to combat this issue. So to me, it was more of a punt than it was actually taking it head on.

I've seen pictures of your parents because you've posted them on Twitter. What were you trying to do when you shared your parents story on Twitter this week?

For me, when I saw the debate going on about Apu, I just thought there was a gaping hole [because] no one ever felt like, "Hey let's talk to someone who's actually lived this life." And that's kind of what became the genesis of my thread. It's amazing that it's registered with people from all sides.

An old photo of Amar Shah's parents, which was posted on his viral Twitter thread. (submitted by Amar Shah)

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. To hear more from Amar Shah, download our podcast or click the Listen button at the top of this page.