Updated: April 15, 2021 8:45:50 am
In most cases, having the chance to portray an iconic character isn’t something actors have to feel sorry for. It is unlikely, for example, that Marlon Brando would apologise to all Italians and Italian-Americans for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Actor Hank Azaria, though, offered up an unconditional apology to “every single Indian person” for voicing Apu, the immigrant shop store owner in The Simpsons. Azaria, a White actor, and the creators of the show had retired the character last year, after a severe backlash over the allegedly racist and stereotypical portrayal.
The real problem with Apu was that for over 30 years, he was one of the few South Asian characters that was a regular feature on American TV. He was so popular that “Apu” became a racial slur. Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, who made a documentary about the Apu phenomenon and the structural racism it purportedly represents, has welcomed the apology. And, of course, an acknowledgement of anything that promotes stereotypes, even unintentionally, is always a good thing. But before Indians begin celebrating the downfall of Apu, perhaps a little introspection is in order.
For decades, to take just Hindi cinema, Nepalis have been watchmen, all generically called “Bahadur”. Sridevi’s backup dancers in Hawa Hawai, a song in Mr India, wore blackface. Tamilians say “ayyo” repeatedly and sport a vibhuti, Bengalis are cowardly and wear dhotis. Recently, in Bala (2019), Bhumi Pednekar was in blackface. And finally, the “Chinese eyes” of Deepika Padukone in Chandni Chowk to China and Priyanka Chopra’s “look” in Mary Kom. These stereotypes, like Apu, are far from harmless. Africans, people from the Northeast and Nepal, women, migrants from north and south India to Mumbai — each category stereotyped has faced bigotry, even violence. Yet, as English-speaking Indians feel vindicated at the vilification of Apu, there are no demands for a similar appraisal of culture closer home.
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