INTERVIEW: truTV doc explores controversial character of Apu

The Problem With Apu features standup comedian Hari Kondabolu. Photo courtesy of truTV.jpg.

The Simpsons is a cultural landmark that has been lampooning culture, society, government and politics for decades. The animated series continues to churn out new episodes, some of them featuring the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian convenience store owner voiced by Hank Azaria.

A new documentary, titled The Problem With Apu, questions the cultural appropriateness of the stereotypical character and whether others felt the portrayal was hurtful. The film, which recently premiered on truTV, focuses on overall minority representation and asks important questions about identity, perspective and art.

At the center of the documentary is standup comedian Hari Kondabolu, who begins the conversation on the topic of Apu. He gathers many voices, including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. Recently, Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with the film’s director, Michael Melamedoff. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.

When did you first see the character Apu on The Simpsons? What were your initial thoughts?

I had been obsessed with The Simpsons starting with their run on The Tracey Ullman Show and was 10 when the show spun off and hit the air. As a 10-year-old when that happened, I didn’t give much thought to Apu at all. It was all Bart Simpson for me in those early days.

What compelled you to make the documentary?

I stopped watching The Simpsons shortly after college, mostly because life got in the way. I remembered the show fondly, knew it had spawned some incredible episodes and a legacy of important, influential writers; but beyond that I hadn’t given it much thought. What I did spend a lot of time thinking about was my own relationship to popular culture and the current events cycle as the son of two Argentine immigrants and a first-generation American. When Hari sat down with me to discuss the project, I saw an intersection between the way we evaluated and participated in American identity.

How difficult was it to gather all of these voices for the film?

Hari and I had tremendous support from our production partners: truTV, Marobru and Avalon, in assembling talent for the project. The goodwill Hari has built through his voice as a standup was also instrumental.

What do you believe the character of Apu says about minority media representation?

I think what Apu signals most clearly is that if you want to appropriately represent minority voices on screen, the work starts off screen. Our industry needs to do a better job of hiring diverse writers and diverse executives.

Did you have any hesitation critiquing such a cultural icon as The Simpsons?

No. The Simpsons began its life as one of our best cultural critics. I think the best ethos of The Simpsons lives on in the doc. We need more great criticism, and less trolling, to continue to progress great ideas.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

The Problem With Apu is now playing on truTV. Click here for more information.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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