Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has been the subject of dozens of stories and punchlines since he debuted on “The Simpsons” in 1990.
The Indian immigrant Kwik-E-Mart owner has done everything from taking a bullet for James Woods to fathering eight babies with his wife — who he married in an arranged marriage. Despite his popularity among fans, critics like comedian and Queens native Hari Kondabolu say Apu has been a constant stigma for the Indian-American community, which has been dealing with negative stereotypes in movies and on TV for decades.
“You realize this is also a weapon, this character,” he says. “There is nothing to offset in the media . . . and with that accent, you become self-conscious.”
The 35-year-old took a deep look at Apu’s impact on pop culture in the documentary “The Problem with Apu,” which will premiere at DOC NYC Tuesday, and air on truTV Sunday night. Kondabolu says he decided to pursue the project after he expressed his thoughts about Apu in a 2012 monologue on the FX show “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.”
The clip went viral, and he decided to put the issue in more context, so he spoke about minority stereotypes in the media with comedian Whoopi Goldberg and former “Simpsons” writer Dana Gould, as well as Indian-American artists Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn and Sakina Jaffrey.
Kondabolu acknowledges that Apu did get deeper storylines over the years, but he emphasizes that they are still filtered through the lens of Indian stereotypes. He says a romantic storyline for Apu was nice, but why did it have to be in the context of an arranged marriage — and why did Homer have to dress up as the Indian god Ganesh.
“These aren’t Indian writers writing these things. These are basic ideas of the culture without any meaning,” he says.
One of the biggest aspects of Apu that Kondabolu tackles in the film is the fact that he is voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. Initially, the Kwik-E-Mart clerk had no Indian connection until Azaria, also a Queens native, used an accent at a table read and it stuck, according to the documentary.
In the past, Azaria has said he tries to be aware of cultural sensitivities with Apu’s characterization, but Kondabolu, who spends part of the documentary trying to get an interview with the voice actor, noted that Azaria still resorts to the accent during conventions, lectures and other public events.
“It does feel weird,” Kondabolu says. “At some point it doesn’t sound like a voice actor, it sounds like a bully.”
Kondabolu says the entertainment industry has made some progress in recent years with their representations of South Asian-Americans in pop culture. The combination of audience demand, a strong talent pool of diverse artists and studios that are recognizing the value of diversity are helping to counter the negative images created by characters like Apu, Kondabolu says.
“I think things are going better,” he says. “I don’t see things going back. I’m hoping the film would further the conversation.”