You Love ‘The Simpsons’? Then Let’s Talk About Apu

The piece touched a nerve with audiences, but it was the one-minute section about Apu that people most remembered. Why not make a full-length documentary about his issues with the Kwik-E-Mart owner, Mr. Kondabolu thought, which could serve as a jumping-off point to talk about all the other things the comic had been stewing about?

Working with the director Michael Melamedoff, the film crew began production in April 2016, greenlit by truTV as part of its shift to comedy programming. To tackle the project, he enlisted some high-powered help. In one sequence, the actor Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”) describes being in a car with his dad when a man drives up and asks them where the nearest Quik-E-Mart is. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th surgeon general of the United States, talks about enduring the taunts of an Apu-imitating bully in the seventh grade. And Maulik Pancholy (“30 Rock”) recounts how much he hated going into 7-Eleven stores as a kid, lest his friends see an Indian store clerk and start doing “the Apu thing.”

In the film, Mr. Kondabolu places Apu within the broader history of Hollywood’s depiction of Indians, including Peter Sellers’s brownface rendition of an idiot in the 1968 Blake Edwards film “The Party” and the Indians feasting on chilled monkey brains in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” He also reached out to a who’s-who of South Asian actors to talk about their experiences in Hollywood, in the vein of Philip Kan Gotanda’s 1987 play “Yankee Dawg You Die” and Mr. Ansari’s 2015 “Master of None” episode “Indians on TV.”

Among the anecdotes: Sakina Jaffrey (“House of Cards”) cornering the market on “weeping, ethnic moms of potential rapists and murderers,” and Mr. Penn being asked to play a character named Taj Mahal, which he credits with his subsequent starring roles in the “Harold and Kumar” movies. “For the record,” Mr. Penn said in an interview, “I had a great time doing it.”

The Problem With Apu – Official Trailer | truTV Video by truTV

The narrative spine of the film, however, chronicles Mr. Kondabolu’s attempts to trace the character’s origin story and secure an interview with Mr. Azaria, the voice of Apu since the character’s creation in 1990.

In a 2007 interview, Mr. Azaria, who declined to comment for this article, conceded that his rendering of an Indian accent is “not tremendously accurate.” Mr. Kondabolu agrees. In the film, he describes Mr. Azaria’s rendition as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”

Onscreen, Dana Gould, a writer and executive producer on “The Simpsons,” tries to explain what makes Apu humorous. Barney, the town wino, is funny because he’s a drunkard, he explains; Smithers, Mr. Burns’s sycophantic assistant, is funny because he’s closeted. (Since that interview, Smithers has come out.) Apu? He’s funny because he sounds like an Indian, or at least Mr. Azaria’s version of one. “There are accents that by their nature, to white Americans, I can only speak from experience, sound funny,” Mr. Gould says in the film.

“This isn’t just a blind spot that the writers had,” Mr. Melamedoff said. “This was a blind spot we all had, on a national level.”

The unintended result: a generation of Indian actors being asked to channel Apu in countless auditions. “Here you are, you’ve gone to theater and film school, you’re pursuing this dream, and you’re being told, do it just like Apu from ‘The Simpsons,’” Mr. Penn said in an interview.

Still unclear is who originally pushed for Apu’s broad accent. Was Mr. Azaria asked by producers “how offensive can you make it,” as he claimed in that earlier interview? Or did he come up with the accent unprompted, as the “Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss said in a 2016 podcast?

Mr. Kondabolu pressed Mr. Azaria for an interview. The two exchanged emails, had one phone conversation (untaped) and even discussed the possibility of conducting the interview on neutral ground (on the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron,” say, or on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” with Terry Gross).

“Hari was sort of like, what’s the purpose if I can’t get Hank,” said Utkarsh Ambudkar (“Pitch Perfect”), who, as Apu’s Indian-American nephew on a 2016 episode of the series, blasted Apu to his animated face as a sellout and a stereotype.

“And I was like, are you kidding me?” Mr. Ambudkar said. “You got all these brown people to come together and talk about something. We could have been talking about model trains! But some 15-year-old kid is going to be like, look at all these powerful, talented, visible brown people in one place. I can do this, too.”

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