Apu may not have had a line in over a year on The Simpsons, but that’s not stopping one Hollywood producer from trying to solve the much-debated problem with Apu.
Producer Adi Shankar, known for Castlevania, told IndieWire that he’s found a perfect story that he feels will solve the problematic portrayal of Indian-American character Apu on The Simpsons, after he launched an open contest for people to write a spec script that would evolve Apu “in a way that takes a mean spirited mockery and transforms him into a kernel of truth wrapped in funny insight.”
Speaking to EW on Friday, Shankar explains what he was hoping to achieve with his contest.
“Apu’s offensive because he’s a byproduct of a white male’s writers’ room mocking what they think a billion people sound and act like,” Shankar says. “They call it satire, but it’s not. The jokes around Apu have no truth, they are mockery.”
The debate over Apu ignited when The Simpsons found itself at the center of a controversy last season after TruTV documentary The Problem With Apu by comedian Hari Kondabolu argued that Apu is a harmful stereotype of South-Asian people. In an April episode of The Simpsons, Lisa said, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” before the shot panned to her bedside table, where a framed signed photo of Apu stands, inscribed with the caption, “Don’t have a cow,” which many, including Kondabolu, interpreted as a dismissal of the issue. (Marge then said, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” to which Lisa added: “If at all.”)
Shankar says he had been told recently by three people close to the production, two of whom work for The Simpsons, that Apu is being eliminated from the show. A representative for Fox did not comment via email to EW on whether Apu would be removed, but sent a statement from The Simpsons executive producer Al Jean: “Apu appeared in the 10/14/18 episode ‘My Way or the Highway to Heaven.’”
In that episode, Apu was shown in a wide shot standing alongside God with dozens of other characters. Apu has not spoken a line in the show in over a year.
In an interview with EW last month, Jean was vague when asked about the show’s plans for Apu. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening previously said, “I love the character, and it makes me feel bad that it makes other people feel bad. But on the other hand, it’s tainted now — the conversation, there’s no nuance to the conversation now.” Hank Azaria, who voices the character, said he’d be willing to step down and allow an Indian actor to voice Apu.
Shankar says his contest received hundreds of entries and was judged by himself and eight other South-Asian people, most of whom work in the film industry. The winning entry was penned by an Indian-American Maryland doctor, Vishaal Buch, who submitted a story about Apu expanding his business empire, and featured appearances by many other Indian-Americans in the business and technology worlds.
“One of the problems with Apu was that he was really a faulty blueprint that had a domino effect that was pretty wide-reaching,” Shankar says. “The way to fix the problem isn’t just to take the blueprint and shred it and start it again… you can’t do it because the blueprint exists in people’s minds. Vishaal was effectively able to modify the [Apu] blueprint and enhance it by adding authenticity.”
Shankar notess that the contest and the resulting script was an “olive branch” to The Simpsons, offering them at least one solution that could help evolve the character of Apu. But, if The Simpsons team is not interested in collaborating, Shankar adds he would just make the episode himself within the next year, as part of his Bootleg Universe, which produces short, one-off episodes of popular franchises. He says he would reach out to the Indian-American personalities Buch incorporated into his script to see if they would voice themselves, and he also wants a prominent musician, such as his good friend Kanye West (who tweeted his support for the contest), to possibly spin their own twist on The Simpsons theme song.
Shankar offered a taste of how the episode could look and feel in a short clip he put together of himself in animated form confronting Apu about his stereotyped portrayal, when launching the script contest.
The goal, Shankar hopes, is to “just be acknowledged.” “We want to have a conversation and be part of that conversation. There’s a billion of us [South Asians] on the planet, don’t dismiss us,” he says.