On Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 4 p.m., a crowd of excited students and faculty filed into the Cabot Intercultural Center’s ASEAN Auditorium. They had trekked through the snow and ice to hear Hank Azaria speak on a panel about substance abuse and substance abuse prevention.
This piece isn’t about that panel. But his return does give us the opportunity to finally have an open conversation about his role in propagating stereotypical depictions of South Asians in the media. Azaria is a very well-known and versatile voice actor; most famously, he has voiced a slew of widely loved characters on the animated sitcom “The Simpsons” for over twenty years, including Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (an approximate amalgamation of two different Indian names), the Indian immigrant proprietor of the town’s Kwik-E-Mart. I want to address Azaria’s stereotypical portrayal of Indian immigrants through Apu, that portrayal’s history at Tufts, and its broader implications.
In 2016, Azaria was invited to speak at Tufts’ commencement ceremony. Toward the end of his speech, he introduced the audience to several of the “The Simpsons” characters he voiced, including Apu. In his “Apu” accent, Azaria said to the crowd: “Uh, greetings to everybody here. Tufts students and myself, we have very much in common. We both worship an elephant. And there he is. It’s a tremendous honor for me to be staring at an elephant. Remember, please children, that in life, there is nothing that is not so disgusting that it cannot be sold on a heated roller at a nearly criminal mark-up.” Not only was the accent inaccurate and stereotyped (India is a very diverse and populous country so English is not spoken in the same way everywhere), but the content of this paragraph was nothing more than exoticizing offensive stereotypes of Hinduism and Indians. And yet his comments were met by uproarious laughter.
Why is the accent harmful? According to Hari Kondabolu, a stand-up comic and writer of the documentary “The Problem With Apu,” “It’s not an offensive thing, it’s a little insulting, especially when I was a kid. To me, it’s like, how did that happen, how does that still happen, how do we keep doing it? It’s not like it’s over. We still think about representation, we still think about erasure or one-dimensional representation. This is a classic example, but it’s one example.”
So how was such an offensive portrayal of an Indian immigrant character born, and how was it allowed to remain on screen for over two decades? As stated by Mallika Rao, arts and culture reporter for the Huffington Post, “As Hank Azaria himself told me in an interview about Apu three years ago, he came up with the iconic voice before knowing any Indians personally.” In fact, the voice was based on another movie character, specifically Peter Sellers’s character in “The Party,” in which Seller dons brownface in addition to an accent.
There are conflicting reports about the origins of the character of Apu. According to one version, it was the producers who first expressed qualms about Azaria impersonating someone of a different ethnicity. In “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, author Shilpa S. Davé writes, “‘We were worried he might be considered an offensive stereotype,’ producer Al Jean once said. ‘But then we did the first read-through, and Hank said, “Hello, Mr. Homer,” with his accent, and it got such a huge laugh; we knew it had to stay.’” But in a 2007 interview, Azaria explains: “Right away they [the producers] were like, ‘Can you do an Indian voice and how offensive can you make it?’ basically.” Azaria responded: “‘It’s not tremendously accurate. It’s a little, uh, stereotyped,’ and they were like, ‘Eh, that’s all right.’” No matter which version of the story one chooses to believe, Azaria’s complicity in the creation of Apu is undeniable.
This isn’t the first time Azaria has expressed misgivings about the character of Apu. In a 2013 Huffington Post article, Azaria comments on a viral rant by Kondabolu on the FXX talk show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” in which Kondabolu identifies Apu as one of the only representations of Indians/Indian Americans on television during his childhood. “If the only representation of Jews in our culture was Robin Williams’ impression of a Yiddish guy [from “The Birdcage,” starring both Williams and Azaria], I guess I might be upset with that too,” Azaria says in response. But acknowledging the issue of representation doesn’t mean fixing it — Azaria continues to play the character of Apu to this day.
Azaria has also commented on the matter more recently. “Definitely anybody that was hurt or offended by it, or by any character or vocal performance, it’s really upsetting that it was offensive or hurtful to anybody,” he said in a December 2017 interview with TMZ. However, this statement is less of an apology for profiting from a stereotypical and harmful accent and more of an expression of disappointment that people are offended. For now, though, that seems like its all we’re going to get.
But why has nobody ever brought this up? I mean, with all the social justice movements which have sprung up in the last decade, if this were really offensive, wouldn’t someone have said something by now?
Unsurprisingly, no. South Asian/South Asian American issues tend to fly under the radar, for myriad reasons. In fact, stereotypes of South Asians are so entrenched that, as evidenced by the YouTube comments on the video of Azaria’s radio interview, even some South Asians take characters like Apu as a given and don’t see any reason to challenge them, because that is how it has always been. There needs to be more visibility for these issues. If there were already, I don’t believe Azaria would have been invited back to speak at Tufts after his 2016 commencement speech, regardless of the subject.
If you are looking for such a conversation, here’s your chance: on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. in Olin 110, Tufts South Asian Perspectives and Conversation (SAPAC) will be holding a screening of “The Problem With Apu,” Kondabolu’s hour-and-a-half-long documentary about Apu, Azaria and stereotypical portrayals of South Asians in the media more broadly. The movie will be followed by a discussion. The documentary provides a much more comprehensive overview of the history discussed in this piece, and incorporates interviews with celebrities like Kal Penn, Hasan Minhaj and Utkarsh Ambudkar, among others, about Apu’s impact on their lives.
Finally, a disclaimer: Neither this article nor this event claim to be the final word in the discussion about the portrayal of South Asians in the media, or stereotypical portrayals in general; they are restricted necessarily to this one character and this one actor. To extend the conversation beyond this one portrayal to all harmful portrayals of South Asians and other people of color in the media would be to undercut the necessity of having separate, in-depth conversations about other stereotypical portrayals. The goal is to spur further conversation about and critical analysis of other famous characters whom we accept without question just because they’re “funny.”