The Problem with Apu… and The Big Sick

I saw comedian Hari Kondabolu do his standup a little over a week ago in Oakland at the Fox Theater after wanting to check out his act for a few years. Kondabolu is Indian American so besides him being funny overall, there’s an extra layer to some of the jokes that I can relate to as a fellow brown person.

He had been more on my radar as of late because of the documentary he made called The Problem with Apu, which I happened to watch a few days before I saw Kondabolu perform. As a lifelong fan of The Simpsons, it was something that I had wanted needed to check out.

The Problem With Apu

In the documentary, Kondabolu talks about the issues surrounding Kwik E Mart worker Apu from The Simpsons, who happens to be voiced by someone who is clearly not Indian named Hank Azaria. Azaria is also responsible for a number of other voices on The Simpsons including Moe and Chief Wiggums among many others. 

Honestly, I never really looked for Apu to represent Indians/brown people. He didn’t sound like one to me for starters – he sounded like someone who was making fun of an Indian accent – and some of the cultural/religious actions he sometimes took part in seemed too outlandish to be considered realistic. Therefore, I never thought of Apu as a problem. It never even crossed my mind because to me, he’s always been this amusing character on an animated show that I can still quote from. Nothing more.

But here’s the thing – just because I don’t think he represented Indian people does not mean that others perceived him as I did. 

I happened to have a much wider perspective of what brown people can encompass. For example, just because Indians ate chilled monkey brains in Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom didn’t mean I took that for fact because I knew Indians didn’t eat monkey brains. It was just something in this movie that the filmmakers happened to put in.

The problem is that the vast majority of fans of The Simpsons did not come to the show for all these years with that same perspective that I did. The stereotype of Indians that the writers of The Simpsons and Azaria perpetuated stuck. (Some folks probably even think to this day that Indians eat monkey brains because of Temple of Doom.)

And, wow, when you think about it – even just for a moment – you understand why it’s messed up that Hank Azaria is playing an Indian Hindu character on an animated show. He’s effectively in “brown face” while ridiculing people from an entire race and religion. 

I was fortunate that I didn’t get made fun of with Apu-related jabs growing up (I did get a Gandhi-related comment from a kid once in his effort to make fun of me but I was too confused about it for me to actually be offended) but I feel for everyone who felt that Apu directly insulted them, especially actor Kal Penn. In the documentary, when Kondabolu talked to him about Apu, Penn spoke of how he hated The Simpsons because he couldn’t separate the two – the show versus their representation of an Indian character – to enjoy it. For Kondabolu, who considers himself a fan of The Simpsons, that was really surprising. At least he got to enjoy this beloved show despite Apu while for Penn… not so much. The documentary is worth watching for Penn’s reaction and for that exchange alone. Oh, and it’s also worth watching for Kondabolu’s conversation with Whoopi Goldberg. Actually, just watch it.

The problem with Apu is due to representation. Since there aren’t that many depictions of Indians out there, especially when The Simpsons first began, audiences don’t have many sources to help form their perceptions of a race. That’s why it’s not a big deal that there are so many incompetent people of other races on The Simpsons – viewers have many instances to pull from to form opinions because there’s so much other media out there that include all of these different types of people.

The Big Sick has a problem too.

Okay, okay, I know The Big Sick came out months ago and you’re thinking Bushra, you’re talking about this now? But, it’s now available to stream on Amazon Prime and it’s getting some awards season buzz (although it was just snubbed by the Golden Globes), so this movie is getting more eyes on it these days. And most importantly: the movie is still bothering me and with The Problem with Apu out, I think I can better articulate what my issues are with this film.

The basic premise of the movie is based on the writers’ own lives. This was written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon based on their real-life romance. They met, fell in love, and then Emily got sick and was in a coma for eight days. Let me first say that I don’t have a problem with watching a Pakistani man falling for a woman who is not Pakistani. That’s what happened so whatever. But did they have to throw Pakistani women under the bus while they were telling this story? 

Here’s where the whole representation thing comes in. 

Everyone knows that creative liberties have to take place in order to put a true story onto screen. But only the basic concept here is true. This isn’t some biopic like Malcolm X. It’s known Nanjiani and Gordon went through multiple drafts as Judd Apatow, who produced the film, provided comments and kept on wanting more jokes. Reality was never the objective here. As a result, Pakistanis get the shaft.

Well, not *that* true…

For example, there are these scenes where these Pakistani women come over to Nanjiani’s family’s house in the hopes of impressing Nanjiani, hoping that he’ll want to marry them in an arranged marriage kind of setting. I can picture audiences thinking that this is what happens in the Pakistani culture, that the parents pimp out their daughters, sending them off to some random dude’s house on their own to try to impress a guy. There was definitely a temptation to yell out in the theater to the audience: “You guys!” I wanted to say. “It doesn’t happen like that!” Because you guys? It doesn’t happen like that.

And don’t get me started on his mom!

Okay, get me started on his mom.

In the movie, his mom disowned him when she found out he was in love with a non-Pakistani woman. His mom didn’t even do that in real life. When Nanjiani was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, he mentioned that when he first told his mom about Emily while Emily was in the coma, his mom’s first reaction was of concern for this woman who she had never met before.

I can’t even imagine what Nanjiani could have done for the perception of his/my people by including that one thing about his mom’s concern in the movie. Instead of being depicted as backwards and narrow minded, he could have shown his mom as a nuanced character who, despite her shortcomings, cared. But whatever, I guess that wouldn’t have been as funny to Apatow. 

Which is why The Big Sick has the same problem as Apu.

Because there aren’t many representations of brown narratives on screen, for most, this is what they are perceiving brown folks to be in real life. But unlike with The Simpsons, since people are told The Big Sick is a true story, everyone is assuming that pretty much everything in this movie actually happened. 

I’m not saying to not watch The Big Sick. There is something pretty cool about the fact that a Pakistani guy like Nanjiani stars in this movie and that it has done well. Granted, he wrote it but I’m sure at one point studio execs were thinking they could make more money if they replaced him with someone better known. And I’ve always liked Zoe Kazan! All I’m saying is to understand that this is just a movie and it shouldn’t shape your thoughts about an entire race of people and a religion. And also, if you’re brown/brown-adjacent (i.e. have brown friends in your life), The Big Sick may leave you with a bad taste.

Side Notes: 

1) Hank Azaria now acknowledges that there may in fact be a problem with Apu!

2) Interestingly, Hari Kondabolu has this policy that when he talks about his parents, he doesn’t do an accent.  

3) I have so many more things to say about the arranged meeting scenes in the The Big Sick. I don’t know how to get into all of that without becoming really upset so I’ll leave it alone. 

4) I have a “to each their own” policy when it comes to religion – I honestly don’t care about how practicing anyone is – but it’s so lazy to have this one scene in The Big Sick when Nanjiani tells his dad (or mom? I don’t remember) that even though Islam worked for the parents, it isn’t for him. The sentiment is fine but once again, thanks to Judd Apatow, this scene that never happened in real life is in the movie. It doesn’t do anything to advance the character’s story but reinforces to the audience this narrative that the only good Muslim is the one who doesn’t practice in a “Hey everyone, we should care about this guy’s story because he’s not that kind of Muslim.” And no, I don’t think I’m exaggerating :)

One thought

  1. Great post Bushra. I haven’t seen either the documentary or film. To be honest I’m turned off by such films, reason being a lot of what you addressed here. Obviously /sadly, a more traditional story with the humor that may naturally come with it, probably wouldn’t sell or be appealing to the target audience or the non brown audience as much. As you implied, such storylines not only undermine our image to an extent, but are trying to move is away from the stigma of “being the Other” by moving tht character away from the very background that makes us unique. That uniqueness should be the reason the audience should want to come see the movie.

    I do want to see the Apu documentary. I’m still a fan of the Simpsons despite how Apu is portrayed. But never expected an animated cartoon of this nature at least, to do much justice to that issue. I still watch even though I know it’s not nearly as good as in the past. So hope to get to it at some point.

    Bonus fact: The real life Maggie went to the same K-12 school I attended. 😎

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