An Interview with Hari Kondabolu
By Philip Deslippe |
The documentary film The Problem With Apu, written and starring comedian Hari Kondabolu, was released on truTV in November 2017. The Problem With Apu is not only a look at the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the owner of the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store from The Simpsons, but it also addresses racial stereotypes and the lack of South Asian American representation in the media. Kondabolu traces the origins of Apu and its voicing by the white actor Hank Azaria, and connects the character to the history of blackface minstrelsy in America. The Problem With Apu brings together a large number of South Asian American entertainers as well as former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who discuss the role Apu played in marginalizing South Asian Americans and the need for South Asian Americans to be visible in popular culture and to have a leading role telling their own stories.
This interview with Hari Kondabolu was conducted on Thursday April 5, 2018 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, prior to a screening of The Problem with Apu sponsored by the Carsey-Wolf Center that was followed by a discussion between Kondabolu and Professor Kum-Kum Bhavnani and questions from the audience.
Three days after the interview, The Simpsons aired a new episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” which addressed the concerns raised by Kondabolu’s film. In the episode, Marge realizes that a book from her childhood titled The Princess in the Garden is culturally offensive and goes about trying to edit out the stereotypes and clichés. After hearing Marge read her updated version, Lisa realizes what Marge has done and says that the revision has taken “the spirit and character out of a book.”
Lisa, the character who has always been the moral authority on the show, then breaks the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera with Marge and saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” A framed portrait of Apu on the nightstand (with the pointed phrase “Don’t have a cow”) is then shown. The episode ends with Marge saying “some things will be dealt with at a later date” and Lisa concluding “if at all.”
“No Good Read Goes Unpunished” drew the attention of the New York Times, The Guardian, National Public Radio, and others, and was widely derided as a tone-deaf and overly defensive response that missed the central arguments of The Problem With Apu. Hari Kondabolu tweeted the following response:
In “The Problem with Apu,” I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018
You have been talking about Apu for a long time. When did it become clear that you would do a dedicated project on Apu?
I did a piece for W. Kamau Bell’s old show Totally Biased which I was a writer and correspondent on. It was a piece on Mindy Kaling having a new show and the fact that there was this huge progress [compared to] where we had been right before. It was groundbreaking, right? It’s an Indian American woman whose show it was. She’s the creator, the writer, and the thing was built around her. That’s huge. That had not happened before. And to me, it wasn’t that long ago where our only representation on a regular basis was a cartoon character.
So I felt it was important to trace that. Initially, there was hesitation on my part because I had been talking about this topic for so long it seemed old. So if I was going to talk about it doesn’t it feel old to bring up Apu? Telling Kamau this, he was like, “no it’s old to you because you and your community have talked about this for a very long time, but for most people this doesn’t even register.”
So I did the segment, and there was that Apu piece in it specifically about just how blatantly racist it is, and it took off online. People wrote about it. I know that it was used in various classrooms and curriculum. It was not complete, but a fairly extensive way to review where we had been. After that, Aziz did his thing about representation on his show a few years later that was a little more extensive. I got into this discussion fairly early. I don’t know if I was the first. I made that film Manoj which talks about that in 2006.
So I make the thing, it’s still getting passed around years later, and I think that this is clearly something that could use a bit more scholarship, not so much because I was so fascinated with the topic. I mean, I had been talking about it long enough. I wasn’t all that personally interested, to be honest. But it felt like it was an important discussion regarding representation. It something that hadn’t been discussed before. I think it was a great example because it was popular culture, something that gets overlooked. It’s The Simpsons, which is the biggest show. I think as a comedian, the idea of criticizing The Simpsons is a challenge. I had never seen that done before.
And as a fan of The Simpsons, there are a lot of layers to that. You’re a fan of something that still hurts you. You’re an Indian American, but you’re also a comedian. It’s like all of these multiple parts of my personality coming together. It just felt interesting.
What a lot people don’t appreciate is that you’re a scholar of these issues. You’re not coming to the project just as a comedian or to poke fun, but someone with a base of knowledge. I think that one of the things that makes the film work is that you’re able to look at the subject so astutely.
The funny thing about it is it certainly wasn’t the film I set out to make. I wanted to make something that was a little more academic. I don’t think I necessarily wanted to make the whole tracking Hank Azaria part. It was a very colorful documentary, very visual. That’s not necessarily the style I would have employed. But, it was for a cable network on mainstream television and it definitely reached more people than just a simple documentary playing in festivals would have. It was one of those concessions. At some point you have to understand that this was made for the masses. You didn’t make it for other scholars of this stuff. There’s value in the 101 [introductory course] when the 101 has never been done.
My personal feeling? I don’t really care. It’s been long enough. I’m not obsessed about this Apu character. But I can’t go into a film and be like “You know, it was a long time ago, I’m not really that interested…” You need to sell it to an audience. This was a performance. It wasn’t a straight up documentary. It was a pop documentary. It was a performance. There was definitely an element of Roger and Me, following someone to see if they would reply to you. There was that element in it.
I love the fact that we got to talk about film history and Satyajit Ray. To me, you can’t see this in isolation of our artistic legacy that doesn’t get discussed, as well as the legacy of minstrelsy in this country of which we are a part of. I don’t think the history of Black minstrelsy is the same. I think that Black people have a very different history in this country. It’s loaded with a bunch of other variables, but I do think that this is part of a lineage. It’s not the same, but it’s part of that lineage. It wasn’t necessarily the film I had in mind when this idea popped into my head— to make something that was more well-rounded and thoughtful— but I am happy with what it was able to do.
I think the film works so well because in order to make that critique of The Simpsons it’s almost like you have to thread certain needles.
You have to be a fan in order to critique, otherwise people would say that you were just hating on the show. It also felt like while watching it that you needed to be a comedian in order to approach The Simpsons, especially since humor is so often used to dismiss things that are offensive.
Right. Which is another reason why it had to be funny. You can’t criticize one of the funniest things that ever existed by being serious. I’m all for being a killjoy, but there’s a way to do that and be effective, especially when you’re being critical of comedy. I felt like this was a funny piece. In my head, actually it could have been funnier. I know the stuff we cut out. But it’s funny. It’s undeniably funny. And if people are criticizing it and saying that it’s not good, it’s not funny, or it’s not interesting, then they didn’t see the film. Most people criticizing it did not see the film. They don’t have good critiques.
But, you have to be funny in this situation. And also, I’m a Simpsons fan, so I’m influenced by it. The Simpsons critiques popular culture. It looks for inconsistency. It looks for hypocrisy. Criticizing The Simpsons the way I did, to me, is the ultimate Simpsons move.
Totally. This is how a fan of The Simpsons would develop. I’m totally influenced by them, how they do satire and how clever the writing is. There’s no way that didn’t impact me. It was the smartest show on TV, especially back then. So to me, this is part of that Simpsons heritage as much as it’s about the heritage of Indian Americans.
You mentioned Roger and Me, and the film portrays you as seeking out Hank Azaria, which never happens. It made me think of Aziz Ansari piece in the New York Times where he seeks out Fisher Stevens (the white actor who donned brownface for the role of an Indian scientist in the Short Circuit movies). As a reader of that piece, you feel like there’s some resolution at the end. Fisher Stevens is different. The role is put on him. He’s not seeking it out.
It’s a one-off.
It’s a one-off, and however naïve and clumsy, Stevens tries to do the role some sort of justice and do it decently. He also seems to understand why his role was problematic. Hank Azaria is different in all of those ways. Do you think your film works better because you don’t get to sit down with Hank? He doesn’t get an easy out? There’s a productive unease and tension at the end of The Problem With Apu since nothing is really resolved.
I don’t know. I’ve thought about this a lot, obviously. Ultimately, the issues are systemic. The Hank thing is a nice thing to hold onto. It’s interesting. It’s fun to follow a journey. You see what happens when he’s not in it. The points get made. There’s enough archival footage. If he’s in it, I think we have maybe a more complicated conversation. Because you’re talking to someone who is currently effected by the things that you’ve made already and now is being asked to answer for them: “Would you have done it again? What was your thinking? Are there regrets? Why do you still do it? What have you learned?” These are all questions that could open up a whole new inquiry. It’s really fascinating. But he didn’t want to participate and the thinking was “I don’t want to make it worse by being involved.”
I think you get points for trying. And that’s the thing we’ve learned. When people apologize, if you try, if you make a real attempt, it means something versus just ignoring it. To his credit, he did reach out. We did speak on the phone. It’s not on camera, but we did speak on the phone. I thought it was really kind to have that conversation. He was very polite. This was before he eventually chose not to be in the film. He said his biggest worry was how I would portray him in the film, because he’s done documentaries before and he knows that the edit can change the whole point of view of someone’s interview. I get that.
His compromise was [that] we do the interview in front of a third party, like Fresh Air with Terry Gross or the WTF podcast. This isn’t in the film. Again, it’s a private conversation, during that period. Do it with a legitimate third party, so there is a full interview, and if I screw with the edit, there’s proof that I did. And I said yes. I said we’ll do that then, if that’s what it takes, we’ll do that, because the film is about accountability. If I say I don’t want to be held accountable, I don’t think that really works. I don’t know if he expected me to say yes or not, but I did.
And he still said no. I don’t know if that’s him. I don’t know if that’s Fox. I don’t know. But I think it’s a bummer, because I do think that The Simpsons is such a well-written show, it’s such a thoughtful show. This character and some other racial stuff on the show is not particularly critical, it’s of another era, because nobody thought The Simpsons would have lasted thirty years. I think it would have been a really good conversation and ultimately I don’t think it would’ve made him look bad. You’re someone who is relevant, it’s current and talking about this is a complicated situation. And it’s still done with love.
I showed The Problem With Apu to students in an Asian American Studies class who were already aware of a history of racist depictions of Asian immigrants that went back to the Chinese during the 19th century. They were shocked to see such a recent example. Why did such an offensive character appear so late and last for so long?
We weren’t allowed to talk as South Asian Americans until fairly recently, and if there was push back, we got the same stuff we get hit with now: you’re too sensitive, why can’t you take a joke… I’ve been taking this joke for a long time. If you hear the same joke over and over again, you already know the joke.
Or “you don’t understanding The Simpsons…” There’s that. I get that [Apu] is a good character, really thoughtful in a lot of different ways, and he has some really great plots. But he’s built on a faulty foundation of a stereotype. There’s no way around that. I’ve heard that Homer is a stereotype and they’re all stereotypes, but you can have a dysfunctional father character who’s also Indian. You can’t equate profession, character, racial, and cultural background as the same thing.
All those justifications to squash arguments took weight over whatever noise was being made [by critics]. But it took an era where you see multi-dimensional South Asian characters. And it takes a generation of young people who grow up with South Asians to all of a sudden say “this is fucked up. This isn’t supposed to be this way.” I don’t think that’s automatic. I don’t think that’s assumed. It takes economic power. It takes a voice. It takes a generation to grow up with other people. Even back then, they found that voice hacky. It was a comedy cliché back even in 1989 and 1990. So let’s not pretend we didn’t know.
Do you think part of that shift is that after 9/11 there’s this urgency among South Asian Americans to advocate for themselves?
I felt like I had a crash course in identity after that. Because when you hear stories of people getting beaten up, deported, and detained, and the only reason to justify that is preconceived notions about who these people are. Then you realize— How many images of us do they see? How else are they coming to those conclusions? It’s the classic [matter of] white males are not all terrorists, but brown people, brown males in particular, how come we do apply these things [to them]? Because we have a limited number of images and those images skew towards violence versus human beings who are well-rounded.
It became very clear to me, what are our images? The images that are dominant, on one hand you have the harmless convenience store character: this punchline, this prop used for comedy, who is at the bare minimum harmless. On the other hand, you have the violent terrorist from an unknown area, but someplace scary that we should fear. You have these two dominant images and not much in-between. Then 9/11 happens and people react. Are they thinking, “Don’t hurt that person, it’s Apu.”? No, they’re thinking “terrorist.” You have a limited number of images. That matters.
Was there any discussion or thought in the making of the film about clerk as a profession?
To reveal a bit of myself, I grew up in suburban Connecticut three doors down from a 7-Eleven. My family was friends with the families who ran the franchise. My first job was as a clerk there, and it can be such a vulnerable and scary job to have. You’re literally surrounded by stuff people want— cigarettes, beer, cash, lotto tickets— and it’s often just you behind a counter.
At all times of day.
Growing up, I saw that once Apu came out, suddenly everyone had a word for the clerk. When I was working there, I would get white customers who were polite to the owners, but would come up to me when I was alone and ask questions like “Come on, just between us, what is it like working for those people…?”
Really?! That’s hilarious.
And these families all had very different, complex stories that brought them to the U.S.
I wish I interviewed you for the doc. That would’ve been great to just hear someone who had seen that part of it and knowing those families with complexities. We certainly wanted to put that in the film. That’s another restriction when you’re making something for broadcast and you only have forty-nine minutes to play with. Obviously we have hours and hours of footage, and that’s something that was important to me. We shot that whole angle. Let’s interview people who came to this country and work in this country. What are their experiences as immigrants? What are their complex stories?
It was very hard getting clerks. A lot of people didn’t want to talk on camera. I wanted to talk to them and I wanted to talk to their children. What is it like having a parent that works at a 7-Eleven, or a convenience store, or a grocery store? What kind of things have you heard? I wanted that multi-dimensional, multi-generational point of view on that. We got some, but we didn’t get a lot of clerks to agree. Whatever footage we got, it didn’t fit. It’s tricky because there are a lot of things in the film, [but] there are only so many things you can control on a limited budget. We had footage. We had stuff. You always have to lose one thing or another. And it’s a very difficult balance. Obviously, I wish that some of that footage was released. I still think that some of those things are still very useful. It’s actually a resource. We did get that, we didn’t have enough. It didn’t fit. There were reasons.
I find it fascinating and depressing that many advocacy groups for South Asian Americans will shun the South Asian American clerks and agricultural workers. Like the National Sikh Campaign, they are doing expensive media pushes to show America who Sikhs are and it’s all doctors, lawyers, home-owners, and PTA moms. It’s an effort against hate crimes, but it doesn’t portray the people that hate crimes are disproportionately happening to, like the cabbies and the clerks.
And that’s a regret in the film. There is footage of us explicitly discussing that there’s nothing wrong with being a convenience store owner. There’s nothing wrong with being a cab driver. But I would like those characters, those human beings, to actually share their lives, because I’m sure it’s very fascinating working in a convenience store and seeing all the different human beings and how they talk to them and all the interactions. Same with the cabbies.
I think there are complex lives and complex stories that come with being an immigrant. I hear that from my mother and father all the time. Especially of late, I’ve been asking them lots of questions about their first years in this country and their interactions. And there’s incredible stories that we don’t hear. There is nothing wrong with those jobs. There’s nothing insulting about it. The issue is how it’s portrayed as servile and that being the only way we’re viewed.
There’s this great symmetry in the film between the way that Hank Azaria looks at the clerk at the convenience store who inspired Apu and the way that Apu is treated in The Simpsons. Hank sees him as just an annoyance, this finger-wagging thing that’s keeping him from drinking a Gatorade.
And if you spill that, who has to clean it? And you don’t think that’s happened before? There’s footage that we didn’t put in that makes him look far worse. The way he talks about comedy coming from annoyance and anger? It’s a very different way of viewing comedy. The way he described it, I thought “you feel annoyed and angry with these clerks? These people working these jobs that must be hard?”
I didn’t put that in. Again. Time. You give us another thirty minutes, I give you more. Things weren’t cut because I was trying to hide them, things were cut for time. The film I wanted to make was longer and more academic. The whole chase with Hank? If I make a film on my budget, that doesn’t exist. We talk about him and we talk about the choices. I don’t need to chase him down to talk to him. I don’t think that’s as important. We try to reach out, and if not, we keep going. That takes up time in forty-nine minutes. But these are the decisions you have to make. We have that footage, we have those things being said on tape, and we had to make tough calls.
And in the age of social media, it’s very easy to critique what wasn’t included in a project.
Yeah. And I get that. And I get the idea of criticism. I do it too, and I do it with pop culture. But sometimes I think to myself, how many of you have made a thing? At least as somebody who has made a thing, I know that when I don’t have certain voices in the room, and certain points of view in the room when things are being made, there’s going to be holes in them. That criticism of The Simpsons is something I understand very closely. I see my own faults. I know how the sausage gets made. I have more sympathy now for the creators of stuff. You don’t know what was actually there, what decisions, what conversations, what frustrations led to this thing being made.
There’s only one major regret I do have, I will say, something I feel like I could have done a better job [with]. I wish we had mentioned Manjula more. We just have her as Apu’s wife, but [too often] South Asians women are [treated as] non-existent, and even in Apu where you have this token character, she’s even more so. And if we’re saying the only South Asian male character is Apu, Manjula is even worse, right? I regret that we didn’t even briefly have that in there. That’s a regret. You hope you don’t have any blind spots and that you cover it. I really tried to get female perspectives. I tried to get key people who I felt like— whether it’s Whoopi, Aparna, my mom— [represented] a range of ages and ideas, in Hollywood and not in Hollywood. This, I just felt like I should have… because the focus was so on Apu, I didn’t even think about [it]. At least we had something, as shitty as it was.
The Problem With Apu received so much attention when it came out. Do you have any concerns that you will end up being tied to the film and the figure of Apu? What do you see yourself doing moving forward?
Of course. It’s that weird thing that you spend your life and career trying not being associated with this ridiculous stereotype, and now you’ve chosen to be associated with this stereotype. I see the posters. My face is on it and so is his. I get it.
Somebody said something like, “Hari, you took one for the team.” It kinda did feel like, “all right, let’s just get this out of the way,” because we already talk about it already, people who make art and are South Asians. I was talking to my mom about this and how I didn’t want to be that guy and she said, “You can’t control any of that. You made this film and it’s good. That’s it. The only thing you can control is how much work you put out and what you put out.” Careers are long and complicated, and if this is what I have to deal with for now, fine. At some point you hope you just keep making better work.
This to me… the identity discussion is something I did earlier on. I’m somewhat sick and tired of talking about identity. There so many bigger things to talk about in terms of what’s wrong with the world that I want to engage with. I want to talk about more personal things rather than cultural identity. I want to think that this is one of my last things into this particular world. I feel like I paid my dues with that.
Is it the idea that maybe freedom is the freedom to be whoever you want to be, and to engage with your identity as you want and as it serves you…?
Oh, that’s absolutely [right]. And we’re not there yet. What do we see? A lot of straight, cis South Asian men for the most part, and mostly Indian. I think we need more women, trans folks, gay folks, to not only exist, but to share their voices. To actually be the ones who are writing their stories, creating their characters, and bringing others with them. That’s ultimately where it has to go.
It’s lazy on the part of Hollywood to claim that we don’t have enough stories so you’re redoing the same things. When you think about how many variables make up a human being’s identity, you have infinite stories. No two people are exactly alike. There are too many different variables. There’s no way two people have the exact same life and the exact same set of experiences. It’s laziness on the part of Hollywood, and I think we’re starting to show that.
This film is a film that should have been made, or an issue that should have been discussed, a long time ago. Fresh of the Boat is a great show, [but] it’s not really Eddie Huong’s life. It’s not. It’s the Asian American family sitcom that should have existed fifteen years ago that they’re making now. And they found a way to get it on air because Eddie certainly is very popular. We’re doing the old stories that weren’t told before. We’re catching up as quickly as we can so we can tell the more complex stories.
Finally, for people who come across the Apu documentary and it feels like a revelation for them to see someone take apart South Asian American identity and look at the history and power of these images, what are the first few things you would recommend for them to engage with next?
Well, I definitely think if you haven’t seen The Simpsons, you should watch The Simpsons, because otherwise you’re just going to think it is just a racist show. It’s more complicated than that. I talk about the Satyajit Ray Apu Trilogy, but you should actually know what it is. I think it’s heartbreaking that the name gets lost. They are really incredible films. I will always recommend The Karma of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad. I think that’s a seminal work, especially for a lot of young South Asians who came of age in a certain era of the 1990s and early-2000s. He really did provide a path towards activism and being critical about our identity and our place in this country, about racial triangulation, the model minority stereotype, all that stuff. Karma of Brown Folk is always going to be at the top of that list.
Read our 2013 interview with Hari Kondabolu in Tides.
Philip Deslippe is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.