A recent article by writer Manish Vij, The Apu travesty, in The Guardian has stirred up something of a hornets nest of controversy as was chronicled here in NewsBusters. Vij took a strictly PC approach and condemned the portrayal of Apu from "The Simpsons" as being racist. However, his opinion is far from universal among people of ethnic Indian background. Journalist Saptarshi Ray who is based in the Washington, D.C. bureau of The Guardian has a very different view of the Apu character in his response, The wonder of Apu:
Apu may run the local shop, he may indulge in some jiggery-pokery with best before labels and he may count "five-finger discounts" as among his pet hates but he is also intelligent, funny, assertive and impatient with stupidity.
It seems that Mr. Ray has a far better better understanding of "The Simpsons" show than Vij:
Apu forms part of the contrary texture of the Simpsons - there are stereotypes everywhere but many of them don't behave along stereotypical lines. There was, in fact, a bowling team called the Stereotypes consisting of the Sea Captain ("Arr"), Groundskeeper Willie the Scot ("Hoots mon!"), Cletus the redneck ("Gawd damn") and Luigi the Italian chef ("Mama mia") who asked Apu to join, but he was instead claimed by Homer's team, the Pin Pals. He was also in the Be Sharps with Homer, Principal Skinner and Barney Gumble, a Beatles-like band that played a rooftop gig to George Harrison's derision that "It's been done before".
Additionally, Ray points out that the Apu character is far more complex than the narrow stereotype painted by the PC Vij:
Apu may work at the Kwik-E-Mart but his adventures take in everything from being part of the town volunteer firefighters - where, in one scene, Homer, Krusty and Apu are described as "Christian, Jew and miscellaneous" by Reverend Lovejoy. "I am a Hindu, there are over 700 million of us" retorts Apu. "Oh, that's super," beams the Rev - to having a penchant for public nudity. So which stereotype does he fit exactly?
Where Apu comes into his own is that he is never embarrassed about his own beliefs, identity or mannerisms. He openly displays his Hindu gods such as Ganesh and Vishnu in his store ("Mr Simpson, please do not offer my god a peanut"), he talks with authority and affection on a range of subjects...
Apu also holds a PhD in computer science but has been at the Kwik-E-Mart since his student days paying off his loans. If that is stereotypical of Asian-Americans I empathise with the financial constraints but am buoyed by the qualifications for serving customers.
Apu has an Indian accent because he is Indian, as in from India; he tries to swindle his customers because he is a shopkeeper with flexible morality, like Arkwright, the very white, very English, shopkeeper in Open All Hours; he is suspicious because he has been shot eight times ("all Kwik-E-Mart employees must be trained in the deadly arts").
...if Apu is a stereotype it is by virtue of him being America's favourite Indian. The movie campaign may have overlooked and marginalised the feelings of many Asian-Americans and the way they're portrayed but Apu bucks the stereotype as often as he is a victim of it...
Can we expect a public debate in the near future over the Apu character controversy? This is something I'm sure the producers of the upcoming "The Simpsons" movie are sure to relish. You just can't buy publicity like that. Controversy usually means more ticket sales.