A year ago, my mother, sister, and I huddled around our T.V. watching Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King.” We laughed at his jokes about balancing different cultures and became quieter when he discussed 9/11 and his experiences with racism. Minhaj is intelligent, witty, bold, and creative – amazing qualities that are seen throughout the South Asian community. And yet, despite our accomplishments and innovations, I remembered what we are reduced to in the eyes of society a few days later, when a fellow student told me they could do a great Apu impression, performed an “Indian” accent with subtle head bobs and looked surprised when I chose not to thank them for appreciating my culture.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilion is a character on “The Simpsons” and is an Indian immigrant who owns a convenience store. Armed with an exaggerated and unrealistic “Indian” accent and his catchphrase “Thank you, come again,” he has been a television staple since 1990. “The Simpsons” satirizes the day-to-day life of Americans; Homer is the dead-beat dad, Lisa is the young social justice advocate and Bart is the unruly and rebellious preteen.
After the premiere of Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem With Apu,” more and more South Asians have been speaking out about the effect of Apu on their lives and South Asian immigrant depictions in the media. The common response is that “The Simpsons” parodies everyone, so being offended misses the point. But this is simply not true.
For years, Apu was the primary voice the South Asian community had. When the only representation of a race was a caricature, Apu came to represent reality. This is a uniquely immigrant experience due to lack of representation. Middle-aged Caucasian men are not constantly bombarded with Homer references simply because that isn’t their only portrayal in the media.
I believe people who own corner shops are hardworking, dedicated individuals. I also think finding humour in an accent is bone-headed. Being able to speak two languages should be admired, not mocked. So, technically there is nothing wrong with Apu – he is, after all, intelligent, hard-working, and a compliment to the South Asian community, right? Well, Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria – a Caucasian actor. This is what takes Apu from a caricature to a racist caricature.
Kondabolu had previously described the character of Apu as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” This is accurate and reflects a long history that shares this concept. The idea of minstrelsy began in the 19th century and describes an American entertainment form in which Caucasians would dress up in blackface and perform comic routines that mocked Africans. These “performances” reinforced stereotypes, pandered to racist America and allowed people to profit from degrading others. Although Apu is not as extreme as blackface, there is a shared aspect of the privileged “imitating” the disenfranchised.
The name “Apu” references “The Apu Trilogy,”a series of iconic Bengali films by Satyajit Ray that describe the coming of age of the titular character. Made from 1955 to 1959, they are considered amongst the greatest films of all time. This is an insulting reminder of how Apu Nahasapeemapetilion reduces South Asians in all their complexity and talent to a narrative that embodies minstrelsy. To make things worse, Azaria won three Emmy Awards for this character. Countless Indian-Americans struggle to break into an industry that sees them as cab drivers and terrorists. If “The Simpsons” picked one of them to voice Apu, it would have made their career. Instead, a successful voice actor added a few awards to his name by using a poor imitation of a “friendly neighbourhood Indian.” South Asians had no say in the writing and execution of a character that helped define them for over 25 years.
The movement spearheaded by first generation South Asian-Americans asking Apu to not “come again” on air speaks volumes about the effects of the caricature. This demographic has long been considered part of the “model minority,” the ideal for keeping their heads down and studying hard for the next spelling bee. However, “The Problem With Apu” has opened the floodgates for South Asian-American, Canadian, and British people to speak out about their experiences. Unfortunately, it will probably take a while for these voices to be heard without being immediately dismissed. So, until then, please note that Hank Azaria and the writers of “The Simpsons” are not representing or complimenting the South Asian community with Apu Nahasapeemapetilion. In fact, the only thing we have in common is that Microsoft Word thinks all our last names are spelling errors.
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Rochelle Raveendran is a high school junior from Toronto. Having lived in Sri Lanka and England, her experiences in different cultures have led to a passion for learning about cultural diversity in the Western world. She hopes to further this interest through her writing and post-secondary education.
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix
Few people can call themselves rocket scientists. Even fewer can say they are a rocket scientist-turned-actress, producer and Broadway star. Salma Qarnain is a Pakistani Muslim woman who can claim the title.
Artistry runs through Qarnain’s veins. Her grandfather was a filmmaker in Bombay and Karachi, before passing away at a young age. Her mother performed in plays throughout college. Now Qarnain is using artistry to build empathy, playing characters that represent her family’s story and promoting Black and Brown allyship through Black Man Films — the production company she co-founded with Roderick Lawrence.
Qarnain grew up in the Midwest but traveled back to Karachi often. Some of her earliest memories were in Karachi singing along to the Beatles and pretending to be Ringo Starr. When her family moved to the United States, typical of South Asian immigrant parental influence, her interest in math and science and immense love for Star Wars led her to pursue aerospace engineering, hence rocket science. Her mother’s passing forced her to rethink her goals and when she wanted to achieve them.
Today, she describes her purpose for creating art in profound terms.
I want people to be equal. I want people to understand we’re very much all together a speck of dust in the entire universe, and that there are so many more things we share than we don’t.
Starting entertainment work in the aftermath of 9/11 made it clear how she, a Pakistani Muslim woman, would be seen.
I remember [at] that time… Friends of mine told me, ‘Don’t let anybody know x, y, z about you, because they may have a bias against you. Something might happen.’
The beginning of her career was defined by how Western culture perceived Muslims and South Asians. Her first entertainment gig was as a casting assistant in Washington D.C. She noticed if South Asians were cast,
They were going to be playing something stereotypical to what a South Asian person is thought of… that could be the geeky, mainly male, math nerd, or a terrorist.
While the position provided an opportunity to learn about what it took to become an actress, Qarnain also leveraged her responsibilities to make a change — if a role didn’t absolutely require a white actress, she would gather diverse resumes for the casting director, slowly trying to shift the idea of what a person of color on television had to be.
With people of diverse experiences joining writer’s rooms and a “pipeline of young South Asian actors,” the industry has improved but isn’t close to equitable. She sees “Life of Pi” on Broadway and Black Man Films as ways to combat that.
Broadway’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel brings a multigenerational South Asian cast to the stage and has Qarnain playing two roles — Pi’s (gender-swapped) biology teacher, an analytical, guiding mentor, and the Muslim cleric Pi studies under. “Life of Pi” is one of Qarnain’s favorite novels for being a story about faith, storytelling and the power of both to provide hope. She took a callback for the role via Zoom in an Applebee’s parking lot.
I feel very invested in both of these characters. Just because they are absolute extensions of who I am as a person, and to have this be my Broadway debut — I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
She got to play a Pakistani Muslim character once before in the off-Broadway play “Acquittal.” It was the first time she could represent an authentic story. In “Life of Pi,” Qarnain helped workshop the scenes with the cast and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti to make them more authentic.
She absolutely took our suggestions and comments and reactions, for myself, from another person in our cast – who’s also a Muslim – and then from castmates, [who are] Catholic and Hindu, to understand what would work and what would people respond to. That’s where the gift was, that [Chakrabarti] was very receptive to what we had to say.
Black Man Films and her partnership with Roderick Lawrence run parallel to her theatrical journey. The pair formed the production company during the pandemic through a short film that Lawrence created to explore Black men’s mental health. As an enthusiastic fan of Lawrence’s work and having wanted to begin producing for film and television, Qarnain joined the project immediately. The short film, “Silent Partner,” went to 21 film festivals and won Best Short at several.
It was never done for accolades. It was done because there was a purpose and message to the story around Black men’s mental health told through the lens of micro-aggressions in the workplace.
The second short film, “Speak Up, Brotha!” was released in late March and will be played at Oscar-qualifying film festivals, this summer.
For Qarnain, Black Man Films is a platform for change and Black and Brown allyship.
I want people to look at our films and understand where they are, who they are in this film; in “Silent Partner.” If they’re complicit in propagating systemic racism, and, if so, what are they gonna do about it? How can they start? How can they talk to their parents? How can they, you know, engage with other South Asians and put a stop to colorism and any racism that exists against the black community?
Telling stories that reflect the experiences of people of color gives creatives the power to build systems that can improve people’s lives.
There is a racial hierarchy that exists and if we want to break that, we have to be a part of building everything, not just for us, but for everybody who isn’t white.
She is confident that the stories she’s helping bring to life will do just that and change the world in the process. From “Life of Pi” to “Speak Up, Brotha!” the possibilities for encouraging justice and empathy are endless.
Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.
The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.
Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”
The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”
Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.
The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.
Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.