“Were you offended by Apu?” It’s actually surprising to me in this moment that for as long as I’ve been alive, I have never asked my father this question. Usually our discussions about South Asian representations are more like a Who’s Who of South Asian actors on 1980s TV — “Which episode of Benson featured that Indian guy?” This was an invaluable resource to me when writing my dissertation, but we rarely talked about how these racist stereotypes made us feel. Dad pauses. “No. Well, not exactly. I just laughed it off, ya know? But also India is a big country, and it's such a simple depiction, and … it just doesn’t represent me.”
A few hours before our pizza trip, my family gathered for our holiday movie time. That afternoon we watched the documentary The Problem with Apu, written by and starring comedian Hari Kondabolu and directed by Michael Melamedoff. It was released on TruTV on November 19, 2017, and can now been found on the TruTV website and app. The film premiered on November 14 as part of DOC NYC and since then has been met by positive press.
The documentary comes out of a sketch Kondabolu did on the well-done but unfortunately short-lived Totally Biased with (now-Emmy-Award-winning) W. Kamau Bell. As a South Asian media scholar who researches and teaches about television, race, and gender, the show was right up my alley. I remember watching the initial sketch, which aired on September 20, 2012, days before The Mindy Project premiered on Fox. Around this time, other South Asian comedians were also doing rundowns of how far representations of us had come. A pre–Daily Show Hasan Minhaj in The Truth web video series, authoritatively and angrily critiques Hollywood for continuing to show Asians as “docile.” The video flashes images encompassing everyone from doctor and television personality Sanjay Gupta, hip-hop group Das Racist, and conservative politician Bobby Jindal, demonstrating the “progress” that had been achieved by 2012 and yet had not been reflected in TV shows like Outsourced or the MetroPCS ads. Kondabolu and Minhaj draw attention to how far we have come and how we are still haunted by racist stereotypes as seen in the animated Apu, Ashton Kutcher in brownface for a popchips commercial, and South Asian actors being required to do a cartoonish foreign accent or — as Shilpa S. Davé states — “brown voice.” More recently these instances of racist depictions of South Asian men opened up an episode entitled “Indians on TV,” from the Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang–helmed series Master of None.
Like this episode of Master of None, The Problem with Apu explores the frustrations and ambivalences South Asian actors feel about doing the “accent.” However, Kondabolu digs deeper into the contradictions of how a show like The Simpsons, which was so groundbreaking in its socially critical humor, could also willfully indulge in what Kondabolu jokes is a “white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” No neat answers are provided to this conundrum, but revealing interviews with Dana Gould and Utkarsh Ambudkar provide key insights into how to solve a problem like Apu, and of course there is a reckoning with voice-actor Hank Azaria, a back and forth that lends structure to the film.
The Simpsons are a family standard in my house. At least once every visit home, we will get caught up in some episodes (preferably seasons three through 11). Since it was animated — and cartoons were deemed safe for children in my home — it was the only prime-time show I was allowed to watch growing up. Kondabolu remarks on how even though the show may seem an incidental target of criticism today, in the 1990s they dominated popular culture. I remember clumsily skating at the roller rink to Bart Simpson’s “rap” song “Deep, Deep Trouble” (written by Matt Groening and DJ Jazzy Jeff) and then MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” When I made my first mix CDs, my best friend and I interspersed skits of Homer’s “Rappin’ Ronnie Reagan tape” in between songs from No Doubt and Mandy Moore. My dad even has a Simpsons calendar because almost all his jokes derive from episode quotes. Perhaps not everyone in the world was obsessed with The Simpsons, but it was a solace for my family of nerdy South Indians who ended up in Central Indiana. With all this love for the show, did we, as Kal Penn exclaims in the documentary, just hate ourselves? Was laughing it off, as my dad had to do, a sufficient enough response? If my dad had to laugh it off out of survival, I, echoing Hari’s mom, Uma Kondabolu, was thankful for the space my mother and father provided me to get angry about it.
In a charming sequence at the end of the film, Kondabolu gets to live out his fantasy of beating the shit out of all the racist characters that have plagued South Asian performers in the United States. Almost as a coda to the opening sequence of “Indians on TV,” we see the actual embodied comedian in a T-shirt by artist Chiraag Bhakta, a.k.a. Pardon My Hindi, kicking and punching the cut-out-like versions of Indians that Hollywood has provided us. This documentary, Master of None, and The Mindy Project (which coincidentally released its series finale on Hulu days before the The Problem with Apu’s world premiere) demonstrate how South Asians can not only challenge dated racist stereotypes of themselves, but also play complexly wrought protagonists. However, as several critics have brought up, these moves into the limelight can come with a perpetuation of anti-black racism and an aspiration to whiteness. To his credit, Kondabolu has explicitly made anti-racism, social justice, and decolonization integral to his stand up comedy as well as his podcast with Bell, Politically Re-Active. The Trouble with Apu is aligned with these politics, but foregrounds the importance of having a variety of South Asian representations to fight against the paucity of images from the 1980s and 1990s, most of which were white people in brown face. He notes how we now have South Asian politicians, as we see a graphic of Jindal, but the main political figure we hear is former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. He talks about having to endure an Apu-imitating bully, demonstrating how his own life was impacted by these representations even though he is not an actor.
While the credits of the writers, actors, and comedians featured in the documentary demonstrate how many things have changed since the 1990s, this improvement in South Asian representation hasn’t just been remedied by the forward march of time. Asian-American media advocacy has pushed for not only more and better representations of Asian Americans in film and television, but also greater representation of people of color behind the scenes. These activist-driven production and policy shifts in the film and television industries have fostered ways for some people of color to have a seat at the table and sometimes an actual platform to be seen and heard. The proliferation of cable channels and streaming apps have also given spaces for artists to defy generic conventions and go through non-traditional media outlets to distribute their show. Master of None, with many a standalone episode about how race, gender, and sexuality function on TV, in New York City, and at the Thanksgiving table, is brought to you by Netflix. The Mindy Project, which plays with romantic comedy conventions, started out on Fox, but was saved by Hulu. Kondabolu's documentary is brought to audiences like my family and me through TruTV’s app for Roku. Even beyond these more traditional streaming and cable outlets, web series such as Samantha Bailey and Fatimah Asghar's Brown Girls, was incubated and brought to a wide national audience via Open TV, a platform for indie arts and artists founded by Aymar Jean Christian.
Ironically, this broadening of South Asian representations on television and the internet might be quickly eradicated by the work of another South Asian in the public eye, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC is an agency of the US government that is supposed to regulate interstate communications. This means radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC is days away from ending net neutrality, which would put internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon (Pai’s former employer) totally in control of what one can access on the internet. At best, this will make it more costly to access some content, and at worst much of the internet would be censored and inaccessible.
Equally distressing about Pai’s leadership is how he talks about racial diversity on television. In a reply statement to a proposed rule by the FCC on October 25, 2016, entitled “Promoting the Availability of Diverse and Independent Sources of Video Programming,” he opens, “When I was growing up, I didn’t see many people on the small screen who looked like me. [...] And then, in the early 1990s, there was the famed Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons, who was voiced by noted Indian-American Hank Azaria.” Always the jokester (John Oliver points out his penchant for oversized novelty mugs), he opens with his own story of trying to find one’s self through media representation to show how much television has changed.
He draws attention to Issa Rae’s web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and Master of None.
As an American-born son of Indian immigrants myself, Episode 2 really hit home — it examines the relationship between Asians who came to this country in the 1960s and 1970s and their American children. It’s also notable that two of Ansari’s closest friends on the show are a Chinese-American and an African-American lesbian. Needless to say, the show is a far cry from Leave It to Beaver.
His appreciation of television’s racial diversity follows a similar refrain of many critics, fans, and scholars who say we are living in a Golden Age of Television. For Pai though “programs like Master of None and The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl have not been the product of government regulation. Instead, they are thriving because of a free market, one in which creativity and technological innovation are recognized and rewarded.” His defense for doing away with government regulation — that it will enable artists of color to produce more content — assumes that a free market will also provide everyone with equal accessibility to the means of production and distribution. If the FCC goes forward with abolishing net neutrality, access to this “diverse” content will be harder to find and more expensive to watch. For artists and producers of color the open playing field that the internet seemingly provided will become a space that is highly controlled by corporations. Under these new proposed conditions, it is difficult to imagine web series like The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and Brown Girls having the wide audiences they did, much less HBO contracts being given to their creators to build off their initial work.
In celebrating how far we have come, we should not only remember how brownface and brown voice persist on contemporary television, but also call out those public South Asian figures who would use this same history of ridicule to leverage a vision of the future wholly run by corporations that would further racial and economic inequity. Deepa Iyer and Eesha Pandit rightly call out the reprehensibility of South Asians accepting positions in President Trump’s administration, since his campaign was run on racism, xenophobia, and more specifically Islamophobia, all of which deeply affect South Asians in the United States. Even before Trump’s presidency, as well, Kondabolu and Ansari have joked about how conservative politicians, like Jindal, don’t get a pass just because they are brown, especially if everything they stand for has no investment in protecting brown people in the United States. This translated to #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite. Pai on the other hand, doesn’t shy away from his brownness. He echoes a narrative of becoming via media that is similar to Ansari’s character Dev in Master of None or Kondabolu’s story in The Problem with Apu. It is this narrative that grounds him in his pursuit of a non-stereotypical career as the first South Asian Chairman of the FCC.
More than just a “diversity hire,” Pai’s leadership of the FCC is a reminder to the limits of visibility being the ultimate goal in our artistic work, political advocacy, and scholarly criticism. In a moment where there are thankfully more representations of South Asians as evidenced in the aforementioned films and television programs, it is not only worthwhile to push for more variety among these representations but also to be informed and fight accordingly for our media spaces to keep being seen and heard. While immigrant parents may have secured the space for some of us to at least voice our anger in our daily lives, creating these spaces and platforms on television and the web are hard for most South Asians and other artists of color to carve out and maintain. There is still time to register our complaints now as the final vote on net neutrality is on December 14, 2017 (Proceeding #17-108 is the relevant proposal). The future admittedly does not look bright, but I’m staying angry. Stay tuned.
Meenasarani Linde Murugan is an assistant professor at Fordham University.