Accents, Apu, and Shaping the South-Asian Narrative

“Thank you, come again!”
Apu smiles.

The faux-Indian accent rings in my ears even after The Simpsons cuts to the next scene, leaving the brightly-lit Kwik-E-Mart in the distance. 
It’s been two years since I’ve heard that infamous dialogue from Apu, a Simpson’s classic voiced by Jewish-American Hank Azaria. Apu embodies so many of the stereotypes that the South-Asian community is attempting to shed — he is a bumbling convenience store clerk with too many children and a seemingly ridiculous last name. (Honestly,‘nahasapeemapetilon’ sounds like a Caucasian person attempting to pronounce a real Indian last name and failing spectacularly.) And even these aspects of his character would seem bearable were it not for that accent. Apu doesn’t really talk on the Simpsons — his dialogue seems forever engaged in this disjointed song, where all the vowels are discordant and the words are awkwardly strung together. His accent is best summarized by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabulu: “He [Azaria] is white guy impersonating a white guy making fun of my dad.” I wouldn’t mind if Apu had an Indian-American voice on the show — if he is characterized as a first-generation immigrant, it would only be logical — I just wish that the accent was real. 
As a brown teenager, I’m the owner of two mouths. One voice is meant for my American life — for school, friends, and the other elements of the ‘outside world’. The other is the voice I’ve inherited from my parents, a combination of Hindi and English where language falls somewhere in between the two. I’ve heard Indian accents all my life, from immigrants, natives, second-generation teenagers — and the voice of Apu still feels like an imposter. When Hank Azaria discusses his influences for the creation of Apu, he brings up the 1968 comedy The Party. It’s a movie where Peter Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi (at least they chose a real last name) in brownface, who interrupts an elitist Western party and seemingly lacks basic hand-eye coordination the entire time. I understand that in the ‘80s and 90’s, when Indian influence on American culture was nascent, Azaria did not have enough material to work from. It was convenient to borrow this accent from the blundering parody that is Bakshi. But in a world of Mindy Kalings and Aziz Ansaris and Kunal Nayyars, Apu is reduced to nothing but a sad caricature. 
I had mixed feelings when I found that Apu may leave The Simpsons. His voice actor has officially abandoned this role after years of backlash from different pockets of the South-Asian community. As much as I resent his portrayal on the show, I don’t want it eliminated. There is burning potential in the concept of a South-Asian on The Simpsons. But only if that character is dynamic and evolves over the course of the series like the rest of the shows’ personalities. Only if that character is voiced by an actual Indian-American with a working knowledge of the accent. Only if the character is funny for being a character, not a caricature. 
So that the next time Apu yells, “thank you, come again!”, I can come back to the show without the guilt. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s