If you haven’t seen Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu’s insightful documentary THE PROBLEM WITH APU, you can watch it here. Vulture’s Mallika Rao sat down with Kondabolu for an in-depth interview to talk about the film which explores the character of Apu–the Indian Kwik-E-Mart proprietor on THE SIMPSONS who is voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria)–from a South Asian American perspective. You can read the whole piece here, but here are some highlights:
ON THE PRESSURE TO TALK ABOUT INDIAN IDENTITY IN HIS WORK
What I talk about onstage is what I want to talk about, it’s not like I’m thinking, this is the political angle. My first thought is, who has the power in a situation and how are they using that power? I usually see myself as the person who has less power, so it’s natural to me that it’s observational to me more than it is political. But there is pressure at the end of the day.
ON WHAT HE WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY WITH HIS DOC
There’s this one anecdote we didn’t put in that kills me. I did some research, and Peter Sellers and Satyajit Ray knew each other [Editor’s note: Peter Sellers starred in The Party, in a role Hank Azaria has compared to Apu; Ray created The Apu Trilogy, the famous Bengali series that the Simpsons’ Apu got his name from.] Ray wanted Sellers to be in his first attempt for a film, called Alien. They hit it off. Then Ray saw Sellers in The Party and was horrified. I just met this man. This is what he thinks of me? And the voice he uses. Peter Sellers has a monkey pet in the movie. The monkey’s name is Apu, and that’s not a coincidence, especially during [the time of the release of Ray’s Apu Trilogy]. I hear that story and I think about Apu, the cartoon character. You take [Ray’s] main character and give him this voice you know he would hate. The fact that [Apu the monkey] wasn’t squashed — this is what happens when you don’t squash it. It doesn’t look the same way, but it still survived.
WHY HE’D HAVE MIXED FEELINGS IF ‘THE SIMPSONS’ KILLED OFF APU AS RUMORED
If he’s gonna do the voice, he’s gonna do the voice. Do I want a brown person doing it? I don’t want anyone to do the voice. If there’s some truth to the South Asian convenience clerk trope, well, a lot of those people end up buying the business. How about we make him a small business owner? He’s always an employee, subservient. Why don’t we get him an opportunity to own? His kids could be voiced by brown actors. There’s more creative solutions, but it’s easier to kill off the character than change. [Meanwhile] Smithers is out. It’s a cartoon. You can do whatever you want. It’s been 30 years. He’s been in the same place. Plus the show — it’s a little stale. That could give it a completely new angle.
Because what I love about The Simpsons is the creativity. That’s why Apu is so frustrating. It’s not creative, it’s hacky. Anybody could do that character. To kill him off is extremely lazy and a cop-out.
ON HIS PHONE CONVERSATION WITH APU VOICE ACTOR HANK AZARIA ABOUT APPEARING IN THE DOC
He was like, “You’re really funny. I‘ve watched your stuff. What you’re doing is really great. But I’ve been involved in docs and I’m worried about throwing myself at the mercy of your edit.” The compromise is we do the interview done by Marc Maron or Terri Gross so I can’t screw with the edit. And I said yes because the film’s about accountability. He said he’d think about it. He gets back to me and he said no. That was the mail that I read in the movie. I’m like, what else can I do? I gave you the thing you said you’d need if you want to have an open discussion recorded by a third party. What else can I give you? At the end of the day, either he or Fox was against doing this project. I sympathize with him. It’s not an easy place to be in when you’ve played this character for so long and things change. But at the same time, you’re not 24. This isn’t your first job.