By Michelle Kay
Featured Image by Jillian Maniquis
This year, the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival celebrated its 22nd birthday and featured its first-ever keynote speaker! Brooklyn-based comedian, writer and podcaster, Hari Kondabolu joined local culture writer and film critic Radheyan Simonpillai on stage on the third evening of the film festival. The two covered quite a bit of ground from discussing the deliciousness of mangoes to the need for stories of more diverse perspectives, as well as tackling difficult conversations with family, and of course, The Simpsons.
Despite his experience in grassroots organizing and activism background, Kondabolu doesn’t see himself as a political or activist comic. His stand-up routines centre on social issues and commentary on current events - things he would talk to friends about. The evening’s conversation began with a clip from Kondabolu’s The Problem with Apu, a 2017 documentary that explores the problematic depiction of South Asians on The Simpsons’ through their character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. (The doc is not available in Canada, so clips were interspersed with Simonpillai’s questions allowing the audience to participate in the conversation.)
Security escorted the comic to and from the stage and Kondabolu spoke candidly about the death threats he has received since the documentary aired on TruTV.
“People are threatening to kill me over a cartoon,”
Kondabolu said of the hatred he’s received (with a bizarre number of trolls and intimidation coming from South America.) The Problem With Apu has turned into a David and Goliath situation except Goliath has an army of angry superfans hellbent on destroying Kondabolu for daring to air his frustrations about representation.
Kondabolu pointed out that The Problem With Apu was a low-budget documentary on cable TV, which was still enough to irritate The Simpsons empire. Voiced by white actor Hank Azaria, Kondabolu called Apu’s accent an insult, like “A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” Unlike the creators, Azaria has directly addressed the controversy, expressing regret over how Apu may have been harmful and offensive. Kondabolu doesn’t fault Azaria, an actor who was doing his job. The problem lies with the writing and the use of Apu as a punchline, further perpetuating stereotypes about South Asians.
The documentary prompted the show’s creators to respond with an episode where Lisa breaks the fourth wall and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” next to a framed photo of Apu with the catchphrase, “Don’t have a cow!” This bit was a direct jab at Kondabolu and critics. Nevermind that Lisa is supposed to be the series’ moral mouthpiece and voice of reason.
As it stands, The Simpsons’ creators are contemplating getting rid of Apu’s character entirely, which is not what Kondabolu wants. He was a fan of the show and called the writing brilliant. It was influential in its heyday but that doesn’t mean it’s above criticism. “Something that’s done right can also be damaging. That’s how propaganda works,” said Kondabolu. “Just because it’s funny, doesn’t mean it’s right.” There’s no denying that the series was an enfant terrible, poking fun of and agitating the mainstream. “I learned to criticize pop culture from them,” said Kondabolu, pointing out the double standards at play. “I’m a product of what you taught me!” What he would like, is for Apu’s family and children to play a more significant role.
The conversation then moved to self-hate and the scarcity mentality that many people of colour face, especially in entertainment where there is the idea that only one of us can make it. “Like aunties, uncles, tea and cricket, self-hate is one of the things the British have given us,” continued Kondabolu to nods and laughter from the audience. The comic would like to see fuller characters on the big and little screen, ones where ethnicity is a part of identity but not a key part of or the only defining feature.
The evening lasted two hours, wrapping up with a thoughtful and earnest Q&A. The crowd was delighted to learn that Kondabolu’s parents were present when a question about difficult conversations with family was posed. Kondabolu tried to give the microphone over to his mother to answer but she expertly deflected the question, saying that she didn’t want to take the limelight away from Kondabolu. “Mom, it’s such a fucking cop out,” joked an exasperated Kondabolu. Doing the work within the community requires time and patience, not unlike the effort our folks put in when they were raising us. He and his mother talk all the time.
“Our parents aren’t static. They’re also learning things.
They are not who they were 30 years ago.”
He went on to say being an immigrant isn’t easy, and how proud he is of how much his parents have changed and grown. “They gave up everything to move to a new country, adjust to a new system and learn a new language,” said Kondabolu. “We do not give our parents enough credit.”
Michelle Kay is a writer, editor and librarian based in Toronto. She was the features editor at Shameless magazine and currently a contributing editor at cléo, a journal of film and feminism. You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @yo_mk.
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