November 17, 2017

The Problem With Apu: World Premiere

Comedian Hari Kondabolu is one of the few personalities of South Asian representations in media that has reached a certain level of cultural significance. He is a part of the new wave of actors, comedians, writers and high profile persons striving to find their place in the American landscape where the most notable “person” of South Asian is a cartoon stereotype Apu from The Simpsons. Sure The Simpsons can be a pretty savvy show (at times) in its satire of cultural touch points but to Kondabolu, Apu is problematic. When the first South Asian person most people can think of is a character voiced by a white guy there are issues. The Problem With Apu looks at the problems Apu presents and by proxy his ever elusive voice actor Hank Azaria.

Actress and Comedian Aparna Nancherla discussing her presence in the writing room.

The Problem With Apu comically looks at the point of contention among South Asians and Apu as the sole representation of people of their background for american media for the better part of the last 28 years. Featuring notable interviews from actor Kal Pen, who hates The Simpsons in its entirety due to the presence of Apu; former Surgeon general Vivek Hallegere Murthy, who achieved a seat at in former President’s Obama staff; EGOT Whoopi Goldberg shares stories of parallel struggle of Black people and minstrel shows, the imagery of which she states aren’t wholly wrong in that it wasn’t malicious to create Black face art it just “was”. The documentary unfolds and analyzes the conception of Apu and his presence in the interviewees lives as the focus narrows in on The Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria who took a no name clerk and made him a accented caricature of who he thought was a person of South Asian decent.

Actor Utkarsh Ambudkar who played Jay, the millennial scapegoat to justify Apu as satire.

So as it is Apu is a brown person played by a white guy whose trademark “thank you, come again” gets repeated by the populous back to South Asians as its a relative concept of what a South Asian person says and does. Good job Simpsons. You try to make a “statement” with Apu standing in for the “immigrant” story in the US but end up creating a polarizing outdated character.

Throughout the film Hari Kondabolu tries to reach out to Hank Azaria to set the record straight about his involvement in the creation of the bane of an entire people but he cops out via email communication as to not be at the mercy of the films editing process to be made out a certain way.

Dir. Michael Melamedoff an EGOT Whoopi Goldberg at the IFC screening.

Sorry Hank your ability to chose your own representation while you put a false one forward every time you voice Apu is as bull shit just like Apu’s name. As the film notes Apu’s last name literally means “Bullshit” it Sanskrit. Although Hank Azaria didn’t appear in the film he still served a purpose as the literal face of a discounted view of diversity.

Thankfully after the films world premiere and Q&A at the DOC NYC festival at the IFC center I was able to ask Hari Kondabolu and director Michael Melamedoff.

Kaos Blac: So you say your film is a solution in itself to the problem of representation by being out there, moving on from there would you say if The Simpsons would call you right now to be a lead writer would you take the job. Would that further representation?

Hari Kondabolu discussing his film during the Q & A at the IFC.

Hari Kondabolu: Yes, Oh my god that’s like the most important thing. Having us in the writers room, having us as executives – people of color tats huge because if there is just one person of color in the office its like, “what do you think of this” “I guess its good-” “okay its good”. You need some voices to really be critical. I remember when I was on a show called Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Kamau’s writing staff was so diverse. there was me, Aparna, Janine Brito, Guy Barnum, Dwyane Kennedy, I mean it was loaded with talent and it was like all these people who in ten years your gonna be like holy crap they were all writing together – and it was so many different voices and the conversations would turn really political and interesting and we’d get these perspectives that we hadn’t thought about because we were all at the table. Sometimes it would slow things down a little bit but partly because this never happens. A writer room like this never happens.

Kaos Blac: Because you have to be at the table to bring things in.

Hari Kondabolu: Yes, and if this happens a bunch of times we would have best practices for diverse writers rooms. We were creating them as we were going. That lead to a really ground breaking show, that show was two years ahead of its time because we had a perspective nobody was talking about because we had bunch of really thoughtful writers of color and white writers who understood what their jobs were which is to make the best show the can and understand the vision of the host and I mean that’s what you need.

Hari Kondabolu and Kaos Blac

So you need host that are people of color, support that are people of color and women and queer folks. Its important to have people say its tokenism for the sake of diversity, no YOU’RE making it tokenism for the sake of diversity we want more than one job. Whenever I get asked by shows ‘hey can you give us a list of people color and women and queer folks that you think should submit’ I do it and I know these people are great and I submit it and every time I feel good that they asked me when I submitted it, then afterward I’m like you’re asking a random guy? That’s your process to figure out writers you’re asking a random guy, there is a problem in the system and that’s what has to change. So if I was offered a job as head writer of course i’d take it.

Kaos Blac: What was your process in the editing room?

Director Michael Melamedoff detailing his views of the subject of the film.

Michael Melamedoff: The first thing we did when really trying to unpack this story was there was a heavy amount of outlining that went in unlocking the story and a big part on how we approached this edit was asking that every act of the story asked a crucial question. The first act asked question what is the problem with Apu. The second act asked how did we get here what history of The Simpsons that lead us to this place. The third act looks at acts of minstrelsy and defined minstrelsy. So we looked at every act as asking a different and pertinent question of the problem of Apu and setting up the difficult more important questions of the film which is how do we improve representation our country.

Once we had those big headings for the act we sort of began to be able to map the acts in the edit and really look to key sound bites a big piece of this was had incredible talent we had an incredible voice in Hari leading these interviews, conversations and set pieces that allowed us to loosely tread a narrative throughout and of course we had this framework of trying to locate Hank which was a big touch point we could constantly come back to and hang a narrative on but really the first thing we wanted to do is say what are the big questions that we need to educate people on in how racism can manifest itself innocuously how soft racism takes hold in a cultural landmark and touch stone like The Simpsons.

Kaos Blac: How was it working with Hari as a comedian and having that aspect of him being woven into film making it informative and comedic?

Michael Melamedoff: The great things about working with Hari are 1) is that he has an unshakable point of view he knows his voice he has a clear understanding of who he is and what he wants to say and that makes my job a million times easier and the other great thing about working with Hari is that every question that we asked him over the course of the film he would also stop to ask how would we make this funny. He knows he’s a comedian, he knows he’s an entertainer, he knows that the platform in which he advocates for values that are important t him as a performer and he was always incredibly conscious of helping guild the film to a place that could be both instructive and really really funny in terms of how it ask the questions that it ask. So in that regard he made my job a lot easier it allowed me to focus on complex things like structure how to integrate animation into the film how we told a story how we paid homage and recognized the legacy of The Simpsons while also being true to the needs of the voices of an under represented South Asian community.

Kaos Blac: What was the process of getting the archival footage for the film?

Michael Melamedoff: We had an incredible research team, the production team that produced the film Marobru really went to great lengths to provide use with valuable research to worked diligently towards securing necessary archival material to vetting materials to seeking out  random factoids that began incredibly invaluable. Hari and I of course did a fair amount of heavy lifting in terms of just uncovering gems and then we were lucky our lead editor Rebecca Beluk is a huge Simpsons fan and having her canonical knowledge of the series was also incredibly instructive. Working with somebody who in the middle of act three could point to the act and say this is the place where we need to speak with Apu because I remember it from like season 7 episode 8 was truly invaluable. I’m so lucky I had a partner like Hari, the great people at Marobru  and especially my editor Rebecca Beluk, she’s awesome.

The Problem With Apu debuts on TruTV November 19th, at 10pm ET/PT.

Kaos Blac





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