With his 2017 documentary “The Problem with Apu,” comedian Hari Kondabolu analyzed the different stereotypes and clichés that “The Simpsons” animated character, Apu, represents. He boldly and publicly denounced Apu, calling him a racist depiction of South Asians. The aftermath of the doc has been a mess of racially insensitive responses, much like the character itself.
After the airing of the documentary on TruTV, the actor who voices Apu, Hank Azaria (a white man), spoke out about what he saw. He claimed his “eyes have been opened” and he is willing to have a dialogue on this topic.
Following that, “The Simpsons” released their response in a 21-minute episode titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.” In the episode, Marge realizes that her favorite childhood book is full of offensive content that she was previously ignorant of. Through this narrative, “The Simpsons” delivered a highly misguided response from a place of privilege on whether they think they are being racist.
The Comedy Trap
Racism disguised as humor is arguably the most insidious of its kind. It disempowers the subject of the joke and allows the person making a joke a foolproof excuse to defer any responsibility or blame.
Racist jokes perpetuate racism. This isn’t news to anyone. But hiding racism in comedy masks that harm in humour, giving the illusion that it’s comparatively not really that big of a deal — which can arguably be more detrimental. Anyone who raises a voice against such humour is automatically “being too sensitive” or “can’t take a joke.”
On the other hand, it allows the people in power, namely white people, to laugh at racism and in doing so, dismiss it. They get to benefit off the power of their whiteness and diminish people of colour for things they can’t control, like their accent. It creates the idea that if racism is funny, it’s okay.
The problem with this is that the people in power get to decide what’s funny and what’s not. While the people suffering from the damaging effects of the joke get no input in that decision. If they question it, they are silenced.
In “The Problem with Apu,” I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.
“The Simpsons” uses a similar tactic to discredit accusations of racism. In the documentary, a writer of the show, Dana Gould, says, “but it’s [Apu’s accent] funny.” However, it’s funny because it plays up racist stereotypes based on a larger system of oppression that persecutes people of colour. So why is that okay?
The White Defensiveness
Hollywood’s representation problem remains because white content creators refuse to address the root cause of it. White defensiveness in the face of racism allegations is what really stalls any conversation. We see it with Dana Gould and Hank Azaria in the documentary, but we’ve also seen it before all over the industry.
When Lee Daniels (showrunner of “Empire”) asked Beau Willimon (showrunner of “House of Cards”) whether he has any black writers in his writers’ room, he fired off, “How many women do you have? How many Asian writers do you have?” He did not want to admit he had no black writers on his staff, calling the question “weird.”
It is this exact attitude that hinders an honest dialogue on racism and representation in the media: Because white content creators are too worried about being called racist than actually focusing on the harm they are causing. They grasp at excuse after excuse to take the blame off themselves. “It’s funny” or “I have a job to do” are weak explanations for the damage that “The Simpsons” is doing. Not only is that an insult to South Asians but to creativity itself.
At the end of the day, white content creators refuse to ask themselves the hard questions and resign themselves to a passive position when questioned on their racism. No one asks why this accent is funny or why the racist effect is worth the comedic one. No one ever acknowledges the western viewpoints that shape our understanding of “funny accents.” And no one ever acknowledges the racist bias Americans subconsciously have against people of colour. Laughing at their accent is just one of the manifestations of a deep-seated and disturbing attitude toward minorities.
The Wrong Response
Recently, Hank Azaria has gone on record to state that he believes this is an important conversation to have. Apparently, “The Simpsons” don’t think so, as their recent episode brushed off the whole issue. In the episode, Marge attempts to make an outdated and offensive book acceptable for modern times. About the process, Marge says,
“It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character of a book but now it’s as inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati.”
But it is possible to create work that has heart and character and doesn’t rely on offensive material. Ironically, this is work “The Simpsons” refuses to do.
Bill Maher also commented on this, urging people to take that same view. Recently, he asked his audience to “stop being surprised every time you watch an old movie or TV show and find some of the ideas in it are old.” He went on to tell people to stop expecting content to be “woke” 30 years before being “woke” was a thing.
But “The Simpsons” isn’t an old TV show; it’s on the air right now. And Apu isn’t a frozen-in-time character that we cannot judge from contemporary standards. He is a character in progress who is only as informed and evolved as the writers that write him now. For decades, he was sadly the only mainstream representation South Asians got, and as Kondabolu points out in his documentary, South Asians are still fighting tooth and nail to have the few celebrities who do represent the community represent them as realistically as possible.
The problem is that Apu’s origins are racist and offensive. They cause real-world harm to real people living real lives. What the show and Bill Maher fail to understand is that this isn’t political. To many people, this is personal and present, as was the point of Kondabolu’s entire documentary. Clearly, “The Simpsons” missed the point.
We must ask the question: Is preserving and perpetuating offensive content worth the damage that it causes minorities? Is the spirit and character of Apu so important that the creators of “The Simpsons” are willing to risk the suffering of the South Asian community? The answer is yes, they are.
In fact, ‘The Simpsons’ creator, Matt Groening said about the Apu controversy that we all live in a time where people “love to pretend they’re offended” and clearly doesn’t care about those who have been offended and affected by a stereotypical character. Creating (and now defending) Apu was a decision they made without consulting the community they abandoned.
So, when Lisa Simpson asks,
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
You can stop it, that’s what you can do.
Fatima Ahmed is a 1.5 generation Pakistani working on her degree in English Literature in Vancouver, Canada. She has an interest in human rights activism, social justice affairs, literature and art as well as excessive chai drinking. You can find her on twitter @FattyA123 or read more of her articles at schemamag.com.
February 28, 2023March 5, 2023 5min readBy Arun S.
Born in the US and raised in New Zealand, actor Anya Banerjee made her television debut, this past Sunday, in season 10 of NBC’s “The Blacklist.” She is seen playing the character of Siya Malik, daughter of former task force member Meera Malik who met with an untimely death in season one.
An MI6 agent, Malik is hoping to learn more about her mother and the work she did with Raymond Reddington. Her character is a sharp, inventive, fearless spy with a knack for spotting what motivates others. Even though this is her first-ever television role, one can see how deeply involved Banerjee is in the character, pushing you to connect back the dots to the history her character comes with. In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Banerjee talks more about her journey into acting, what drew her to the role of Siya and what should the audience expect from the 10th and final season of the show:
People, in general, are very influenced by the content they consume. Was there a specific film, play, or television series that got you interested in acting?
As the first in my family to be raised in “the West,” just being in the world involved performing some kind of identity. Film and TV acted as a third parent in that regard. I’m the first actor in my family, but have wanted to do this since before I can remember. Watching “Bend It Like Beckham” when I was in primary school showed me there was a place for South Asian female leads in Hollywood. I’ve also always been drawn to media with some element of the fantastical. I loved Baz Lurhmann’s “Moulin Rouge” because it brought the theatricality of the stage to the screen in a spectacular way. I remember being tickled by the cultural fusion in the film. It reflected my own sense of being at the intersection of various cultures and the appeal of escaping into a made-up world.
Were you a part of any productions in school or in college that influenced you?
I did a lot of singing and dancing as a kid; Indian dance-dramas at Durga Puja and yearly ballet recitals. We did musicals and Shakespeare productions at secondary school and that’s also when I started working in Auckland’s professional theatre scene.
What were some of your favorite roles while pursuing the acting program at Columbia University and how did they prepare you for your television debut?
Casting director James Calleri headed the acting MFA program at Columbia when I was there and his on-camera classes really set us up for success in TV. We also had the tremendous good fortune of being Ron Van Lieu’s first cohort at Columbia. The master acting teacher directed our thesis production of “Where Do We Live?” by Christopher Shinn. I played Lily, a British party girl who has to be physically and emotionally vulnerable in the play. With the help of movement coach Sita Mani and intimacy co-ordinator Alicia Rodis, I gained the confidence to take more risks in my acting. Now I’m playing a very different Brit with a totally different background and disposition but I’m using many of the same tools I used as Lily to feel grounded as Siya.
How would you describe “The Blacklist” to people wanting to learn more about the show?
Action-packed, full of intrigue, and endlessly entertaining. There’s a reason this show has been killing it for a decade and that’s the high caliber of the cast and crew, as well as the inventive and topical writing that keeps fans coming back for more. Audience members who’ve watched from the beginning will appreciate the full circle moments that my character ushers in — I play the daughter of Meera Malik, late CIA agent from season one so my storyline is a bit of a throwback. But new viewers can use me as an access point into the world of “The Blacklist” as Siya uncovers it, bit by bit, as a newcomer herself.
How did you prepare for the role of Siya Malik and how similar are you in real life to the character you’re playing on screen?
Some of the first things I had to learn on the job were stunts and how to operate a firearm. You’ll be seeing a lot of Siya kicking butt. The gun stuff was entirely new for me but I took to it very quickly and my background as a dancer helped with the fight scenes. Something I identify with in Siya is her resilience. She’s turned the tragedy of her mother’s death into the fuel that led to her own career as an MI6 agent, overcoming obstacles and others’ underestimation of her. That’s the kind of fire inside that I really admire and hope to practice in my own life.
I love characters with complex inner worlds — ones who are deeply flawed and may even be outcast from society, but who rise above the odds to carve out space for themselves and the ones they love.
Do you feel South Asians are still pigeonholed into certain roles or has it gotten better?
I think things are a lot better than what I grew up seeing in the early 2000s. “Sound of Metal,” for example, is one of my favorite movies because Riz Ahmed’s riveting performance has little to do with him being South Asian and everything to do with his commitment to an expertly crafted role.
Is there a dream role you would want to play?
On stage, someone as volatile as Emma from Duncan Macmillian’s “People Places & Things.” On screen, someone as funny as Amina in “We Are Lady Parts” or as brave as the title character in “Kimi.”
You have worked with many talented individuals. Is there anyone still on your list you would want to work with in terms of directors, actors, actresses, and others?
Parminder Nagra, obviously! As a Kiwi, it would be a dream come true to work with Jane Campion or Taika Waititi. I’m most excited to form meaningful relationships with artists daring enough to challenge the status quo.
You describe yourself as a “Kiwi-Bengali in the Big City.” How have you felt as an Indian American, raised in New Zealand, coming into the acting world?
There’s been a lot of juggling aspects of my triangular identity. A lot of the times in this industry people want you to be just one thing, or maybe two, but three’s pushing it! The reality is that we live in a globalized world. We have to make room for cultural nuance in the media. So maybe I’ll lean into my American side today, turn up the Kiwi tomorrow, and speak Bengali with my Indian parents on the phone. All are valid, authentic expressions of myself and reflections of the real world.
It’s okay to be a chameleon — in fact it’s a gift. Adapting aspects of your personality and identity to different circumstances is part of being a multicultural artist.
What is something not many people know about you?
I can be a little introverted and have struggled with social anxiety since I was a teenager. I had a bit of an emo phase then, but have since learned to take life less seriously and it’s made me a lot happier. My loved ones nurture and embrace the goofball in me. If you get to know me, I might let you see my inner clown!
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview?
Take pride in your difference and embrace the outsider in you. It’s your superpower. There’s no one right way to be a Brown Girl so get out there and be whoever you want to be!
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
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.