Hank Azaria, the white actor that voiced The Simpsons' infamous Indian store owner Apu, has apologised to 'to every Indian person' for his portrayal of the character. The actor announced his decision to step down from voicing the character in January 2020. Apu has been the subject of prolonged criticism over the years for perpetuating and reinforcing offensive stereotypes.
Azaria started voicing the character with the show's inception in 1989, and continues to voice several other characters to this day.
Appearing on the Armchair Expert podcast, hosted by actors Dax Shephard and Monica Padman, an Indian-American herself, the 56-year-old actor said, "Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologise." To Padman, he said, “I really do apologise. I know you weren’t asking for that but it’s important."
Azaria noted that it took him quite a bit of time to recognise the problem in his portrayal of Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, and to understand just how offensive it was for the Indian-American community.
“I really didn’t know any better,” he said. “I didn’t think about it. I was unaware how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens." He admitted that he slowly came to realise how Apu was the only substantial representation of Indian-Americans in American pop culture for about 20 years. “If that were the only representation of my people in American pop culture,” he said, “I don’t think I would’ve been crazy about that.”
He also felt it was important he took responsibility for the consequences of his actions, saying, "Just because there were good intentions it doesn’t mean there weren’t real negative consequences to the thing that I am accountable for.”
Azaria spoke about how he's been dealing with his realisation since stepping down from the role, saying, "[I] read, spoke to people who knew a lot about racism, spoke to lots of Indian people and went to seminars. I realised I have had a date with destiny with this thing for 31 years."
Apu's character in the show is shown to be West Bengali immigrant with a doctorate in computer science, and his story lines have been stereotypically problematic. The character was criticised closely in 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu, created by Indian comedian Hari Kondablou, to "confront how Western culture depicts South Asian communities".
Commenting on Azaria's remarks, Kondablou called him kind, saying he proves that "people are not simply products of their time”.
Though, after appreciating Azaria for his thoughts, in a later tweet, Kondablou maintained that the situation, with all the 'controversy' around The Simpsons' casting and writing, was a comeuppance for the show itself.
The Simpsons has since confirmed that no white actors will be playing non-white characters on the show. Earlier this year Matt Groening, the show's creator, told the BBC the show was striving for inclusivity.