Hari Kondabolu has had a nemesis for nearly his entire life, someone who has plagued the stand-up comedian since he was a child, subjecting him to ridicule and racist comments: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, better known as the Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart on The Simpsons. For Hari, Apu represents an outdated and offensive South Asian stereotype, made worse by being voiced by a white man, Hank Azaria. Hari sets out on a comedic quest to confront Azaria and make sense of the long-lasting cultural impact of his troublesome character in his documentary The Problem With Apu. We caught up with Hari after his DOC NYC world premiere. Read our exclusive interview below:
Q: Was this the first time seeing your film on screen?
A: It was the first time seeing it with an audience.
Q: What was your favorite part of having the audience there?
A: Just to hear the laughs. It’s funny, when you do the edit of a film, you are making choices based on what you think the audience is going to do. And especially as a comedian, I was thinking things like “Oh we totally have to move it there, it will get a laugh” or “I don’t know if that’s going to work, let’s try it this way.” And to be there and know I was right about certain things and wrong about other things, and “that wasn’t supposed to be funny, but okay I will take it.” So that was great.
Q: What do you hope viewers take away from this film when they see it?
A: I think that feeling of awkwardness when a character comes on and they see the racism in it. I imagine that the whole time you watch “The Simpsons.” It’s not like I didn’t find Apu funny, but there is a point when you get to that part and you realize that, ‘oh this wasn’t written for me.’ And it was incredible to see how people reacted and those moments of awkwardness was really interesting to see.
Q: So many people on Twitter have been saying that this film is just you being sensitive and downplaying what this film is about. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I mean, the thing is, is that I am not too worried about those people. If you are willing to make a judgement without seeing a thing, then what does that say about you? I am all about conversation and doing the big thinking, and that’s what I feel this film accomplishes. It shows the characters and how silly this is, but we still tried to draw something important out of that. So I hope we can find those people that are willing to have those conversations with us.
Q: How has the movie evolved from how you originally thought it was going to go to how it is now?
A: We wanted Hank Azaria in the movie, and I didn’t give up until the very end. But one thing is that we were thinking about going to India and actually ask people there what they see when they see this. And we expected seeing Indian people responding like how people are responding on Twitter saying, ‘this isn’t a big deal.’ But just budgetary stuff we couldn’t do it. And the film evolved quite a bit and we realized that we could use archival stuff to do a lot of it. The Hank archival stuff was great but to have him in it now, present day, to me, would have been the real climax to the film. I kept on saying that this feels like “Roger and Me” but I actually wanted it to end not like “Roger and Me.” I wanted to actually meet the guy I was looking for.
Q: Was this your first time seeing the film?
A: It was my first time seeing the film with an audience like this.
Q: How was it like seeing it with an audience and getting their reaction and feedback realtime?
A: It was really special to feel their discomfort and I mean that in the best possible way. You could really tell that this was an audience that was very much allied with us in terms of watching the film, but was also actively questioning their own experience around “The Simpsons,” and their own understanding of the show and the universe of it. And this has been something so obviously benign to them but has been so damaging in ways that they hadn’t imagined or thought of. It is not my intention to have anybody decry “The Simpsons.” This has been one of the greatest show for the past 30 years, of all television history. But what I am interested in is having people understand that a show as great as this one can make mistakes and could have an obvious blindspot.