Thursday, July 16, 2020

"The Problem isn’t Simply Apu" in The Good Men Project (23 January 2020)


News that actor Hank Azaria will no longer voice the character of Apu on The Simpsons has been received as something of a shocker. Typically, online reactions have run the gamut from blaming cancel culture to reception of the announcement by Azaria on Slashfilm as a sea-change brought on by wokeness. No doubt, Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu (2017) had much to do with intensified scrutiny of the controversial character. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian immigrant who holds a PhD and manages the Kwik-E-Mart, a convenience store, first appeared on the long-running animated show in 1990, soon after The Simpsons’ debut on American television the previous year. All along, he has been voiced by Azaria, a white actor, who affected a fake accent. After Azaria’s revelation on January 17, the character’s future on the program is unclear.

In Kondabolu’s documentary, he and other (mostly male) South Asian American actors speak about the grief Apu has caused them. Some mention the racial taunts they received when they were younger, Apu being the inspiration for those jibes. The actors also explain how the popularity of The Simpsons and its resident brown store-clerk may have affected their careers as many of the roles they were offered were of a stereotypical nature and required an accent. Given the dearth of South Asian representation on US television and in cinema while they were growing up, these actors note the comparative hypervisibility of Apu who left a lasting impression with his sing-song accent which was not even provided by someone of the same racial origins as the character. Further, the actors muse, in standing in for South Asians in America, the character also skewed how that ethnic community has been perceived by mainstream society.  

But for Kondabolu the problem isn’t simply Apu. It’s that Apu just doesn’t do enough. He could be a business tycoon. Lauding the show, Kondabolu says of The Simpsons that its Apu problem could be sorted not by killing off the character, which would be “very lazy writing for such a brilliant show … [G]ive him some upward mobility. If you’re saying satire is built in reality, there’s a lot of South Asians who run convenience stores ... However, they often end up owning the place ... They become like little moguls.” In other words, Kondabolu believes that the Apu controversy can be taken care of by portraying the character as not working class and as a successful model minority.

It is true that most representations of South Asian clerks in American media have been lacking. Where are the stories of South Asian laborers who are undocumented in the United States? Are there TV shows about convenience store clerks who deal with armed robberies? What of these clerks’ family lives or of South Asian women who are also employed in such professions? While makers of televised and cinematic entertainment have relegated the South Asian clerk to a spectacle of buffoonery that may often employ aspects of brown-faced minstrelsy, those critical of such depictions have taken the view that they do not illustrate the South Asian American community as being respectably well placed economically. Kondabolu’s documentary would be very different if it took stock of the actuality of the lives of South Asian clerks rather than only obsess about the kind of media representation that makes the South Asian American community not look like moguls.

Apu has been on television for as long as I have lived in the United States. I sometimes thought about how that character might be who customers had in mind when they interacted with my dad and his colleagues at the 7-11 he worked at. And while where that store was located was relatively safe, I worried about my father returning home on his bicycle after he’d completed the graveyard shift. On the days when he didn’t have much to say, I knew that things at the store hadn’t gone well. Sometimes he’d reveal that he’d had words with a customer or that it had been an exhausting night. I was glad when he quit his job.

Azaria may no longer voice Apu and that stereotypical character’s presence on The Simpsons may well cease, but US media still has a long way to go in giving voice to those that make up its working class. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

"Goan Verité-Cinema & Saudade" in THE PEACOCK: The Prof (27 November 2019)


I knew Goa through the movies. Or, rather, the stories my father told me about them. Not having been born in Goa, these twice removed narratives of our fabled homeland had to make do in the absence of the films themselves and visits to Goa.

And if I heard these tales in relay from their actual source, then this was only fitting given the material. Believed to be inspired by French novel The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Bhuierantlo Munis (1977), one of my father’s favourites, was the first Goan film to be shot in colour. In his book, Alexandre Dumas features a character who is fashioned after and named for a Goan priest who pioneered the study of hypnotism, an actuality history has all but forgotten. Readers encounter Abbé José Custódio de Faria (1756-1819) as the discombobulated but wily monk imprisoned at the Château d'If in Dumas’ classic. Here, fiction coincides with fact, for the real Abbé had been incarcerated at the Bastille at the time of the revolution.

Bhuierantlo Munis was produced by musician Chris Perry. His life itself provides the basis for Bardroy Barreto’s Nachom-ia Kumpasar (2015). I had the pleasure of watching the movie with my parents at Panjim’s Maquinez Palace. The highly lauded film recalls the yesteryear soundtrack of my parents’ generation. As evidence, my mother and others of similar age in the audience sang along with the on-screen performances. But as further proof of the cultural legacy of the music popularised by Perry and the ever-amazing Lorna Cordeiro, whose lives are fictionalised in Barreto’s film, I was additionally struck by how the twenty-somethings seated in the row in front of me would also lend chorus to the songs, many of which still play on Goan radio stations.

Coming as I do from a family that spans the Goan diaspora, the region’s cinema has also taught me about the lives of relatives I have only had passing acquaintance with. The first time I met my grandmother’s brother, it was on his long overdue visit to Goa after having resided in Karachi since before the end of Portuguese rule. Dinesh P. Bhonsle’s Enemy? (2015) gave me some background about how returnees, like my great uncle, are kept from reconnecting with Goa. 


In Enemy? a Goan family once resident in Pakistan return to their native land to discover that their ancestral home has been seized under the aegis of the Enemy Property Act of 1968. Created after the India-Pakistan War of 1965, the law allows the Indian government to take over the properties of those deemed citizens of enemy nation-states. The act targets Pakistani nationals, primarily those displaced by Partition, post-Independence. For the many Goans affected by the act, it was not Partition that cleaved them from their land, but the annexation of Goa by India which then made the formerly Portuguese territory beholden to this law. 

Goan cinema is its own form, its source material deriving from local contexts and histories. Part of the Goan Story segment at IFFI 2019, recent movies like Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s Paltadcho Munis (2009), Dnyanesh Moghe’s Digant (2012), and Miransha Naik’s Juze (2017) dwell on memory at the same time as they challenge conservatism and society’s rigidities. This current resurgence of Konkani filmmaking in Goa is arguably emblematic of an endogamous cinematic movement, one I’d like to call Goan Verité.

Goans have adopted the word saudades from the Portuguese, a sentimental term simultaneously expressive of nostalgia as well as loss and yearning. Goan Verité explores saudades as it takes on current realities and envisions ways forward for our community. 

From The Peacock.