Understanding ‘The Problem with Apu’ Through My Own Experiences

I recently heard about the controversy surrounding the TruTV documentary ‘The Problem with Apu’ that berates animated character from ‘The Simpsons’ cartoon series. I am here to chime into the growing chorus of voices. I see two problems with the character that I will talk about from my personal perspective, firstly the lack of South-Asian representation in western media and secondly my own experiences with traveling to a new place and why this is not represented with Apu.

Firstly like any good reaction to a case of cultural appropriation I should divulge my personal history and background. I am South Asian, having grown up primarily in New Delhi, India. Fathered by primarily Punjabi parents with a religious lineage that mixes Hinduism, Sikhism, Sufism and Buddhism. Yes I know that’s far too many religions, but this comes with how progressive Indians treat religion nowadays, like sticking your hand into a jar of m&ms and picking and choosing the flavours that work for you. I am decidedly agnostic or sometimes atheist. I’d consider myself in the upper middle income group in my country, although my grandparents spent most of their lives in poverty after arriving in India from what became Pakistan during the partition of the subcontinent.

I am telling you all this because the experience of being South Asian is as diverse as can be expected from a fourth of humanity and I cannot claim to speak for all of them as much as you cannot have someone speak definitively for Estonians, Greeks, French, Americans and Argentinian people collectively. Therein lies the problem with Apu.

Growing up in the 90s and the early naughts in India I had the choice of Bollywood, Tollywood, the various regional cinemas, the plethora of Indian channels and K-serials to look for representation. And then with western shows there was only one representation that was definitely known, Apu. To find out that the name comes from ‘The Apu Trilogy’ by Satyajit Ray, a masterwork of poignant filmmaking and a symbol of pride for many Indians, is an awkward feeling.

The lack of representation was something I only came to terms with when visiting the bridge over the river Kwai in Thailand. Having a father that loves war films I was well aware of the American Oscar winning film about the building of the bridge. What was news to me was that most of the people that died in the building of the Kwai bridge and the Burmese railroad were Tamil and Malay bonded labourers and POWs. Then the realisation that British India sent a million people to fight in the First World War and nearly two million in the second, the first decisive victory for the allies being at the hands of South Asian troops, they fought in the battle of the Somme and at Dunkirk and yet we don’t see a single well known world war film that shows troops from the subcontinent.

The lack of representation of people of color in Hollywood as a whole has been a hotly contested topic in the last few years. The #OscarSoWhite campaign highlighted the lack of representation of African-Americans in the country’s premier film awards. The American live-action adaptation and subsequent white-washing of the Japanese Anime ‘Ghost in the Shell’ has garnered considerable backlash. Similarly ‘The Problem with Apu’ points out the number of South-Asian Americans that are visible in the media is growing but is still only a handful.

I will now talk about my own experiences with being an immigrant. I have spent a significant portion of the last few years shuffling between India, the United States and Europe and that has meant contending with how different shifting societies see me.

On the one-side there is the middle-class bubble that I have grown up in, and although this is expanding it still makes up a sliver of the region’s population. India only really started to develop a middle-class in the 80s and early 90s as the country started liberalizing and shook off its protectionist policies. This Nouveau riche is frugal and contained, not yet ready to share in its spoils with those below them. Now the rising wave of religious nationalism threatens to engulf the country. I am diametrically opposed to this having grown up in (possibly the last generation) of Nehruvian secularism. These forces for me have meant managing expectations, nudging the relationships I want to keep from home to be more progressive or cutting people out if I think the exercise is futile.

Then there are the lands I find myself in that are dealing with their own waves of nationalism and search for identity. That has meant being ok with being sent to the back room and questioned excessively at airports, or being told to ‘go back to my country’ by strangers on the streets in New York or London, or more subtle things like people avoiding sitting next to you in the subway or tube. I am a brown guy with a beard after all.

Although I cannot claim to grasp the varied experiences of first generation immigrants traveling from ‘east’ to ‘west’, I can imagine what that might be like from my own. The graphic novel ‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan in my opinion best encapsulates the struggle for belonging many immigrants contend with. I grew up watching the Simpsons in the 90s and loved it, but I don’t think it or Apu are an appropriate medium to capture this experience.

The way you look at me, through your male gaze?

“Come mi guardi tu” (The way you look at me) is a dreamy,  tranquil love song by the Italian indie rock band Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti (Three cheerful dead boys). As many of their songs, it has been accompanied by an animated music video by Michele Bernardi, who has directed and illustrated various clips for bands from the Italian indie scene.

In “Come mi guardi tu”, Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti’s lead singer Davide Toffolo sings about the love and comfort he feels when being with his partner:

“Come mi baci tu
Non lo fa nessuna
Che sia sotto il sole o sotto la luna
Come mi abbracci tu
Non l’ha mai fatto nessuna
Come m’hai visto tu
Non m’ha mai visto nessuna”

(The way you kiss me
Nobody else has kissed me before
Whether under the sun or beneath the moon
The way you hug me
Nobody else has ever hugged me
The way you looked at me
Nobody else has ever looked at me)

The way the animator looks at the female protagonist is less unique, though. In fact, Bernardi’s animation at first sight seems to be yet another example of the “male gaze”, a visual representation that depicts women as an object of heterosexual male desire. This key concept of feminist film theory was introduced by scholar and filmmaker Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.

During the beginning of the music video, the woman is shown belly dancing in the deep sea surrounded by floating, glowing jellyfish. We then see the protagonist riding a motorcycle through urban landscapes and forests to an abandoned beach where she takes off her clothes and jumps into the water. She dives deeper and deeper, again surrounded by glowing jellyfish, until we see her naked body tucked together in a fetal position in the womb of a giant jellyfish with glaring purple eyes.

Though somewhat objectified one should also consider that the protagonist is portrayed as an independent, determined woman as we follow her on her surrealistic journey to the deep sea.  Besides, she is confidently riding a motorcycle—a stereotypical male object.

Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see how a female animator would have illustrated the scene or how Bernardi would have interpreted the song if the admired protagonist had been male.