Apu, Meghan Markle, Freddie Mercury, & Me.

July 16, 2018

 

 

 

Recently I was telling a friend of mine about how I had switched concentrations in college. I had arrived at Vassar as an intended theater major. I had already studied acting fairly seriously beforehand, in the very strong theater program at my hippie-ass artsy high school, and via two summer theater intensive programs in 2001 and 2002 at Boston University and Northwestern University, respectively. However, after being thoroughly disheartened by the first class session of the Vassar Drama department’s prerequisite for the major, I dropped the class. This was also after realizing that although I was a theater kid, I was not a “theater kid,” and I could not stomach the idea of four years amongst “theater kids” (#sorrynotsorry). I attempted to audition for plays produced by the student production company that was external from the Drama department, but after a while I stopped; I had been a big fish in a small pond in high school, and that was no longer the case.

 

I also always knew that being a visible minority with an obviously South Asian name would make pursuing theater as a career an uphill battle – being a big fish in a small pond had shielded me from this reality thus far, but the lesson I took away from my experiences attempting to do theater in college was that acting was not going to be in the cards for me.

 

“Of course,” I told my friend, “I was totally not expecting that ten years later we’d end up with Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj, Priyanka Chopra etc. etc. etc. all over movies and television… when I was growing up, the only brown person on TV was Apu. Maybe I gave up too soon?”

 

Maybe I gave up too soon.

 

Hold that thought.

 

*

 

Saturday morning, I woke up at 7:00 AM so that I could watch the New York Times’ livestream of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in real time. My feelings about the Royal Family are complicated; as a person of Indian descent, I am inclined to dislike them on principle because of the long legacy of colonialism and oppression brought forth by the United Kingdom upon my people (300 years! They ruled India for 300 fucking years!!!). I suspect that anyone who has roots in any of the former British colonies probably shares this sentiment. That said, I’ve always been fond of Harry for a roundabout reason: my mother passed away less than a week after Princess Diana was killed. Experiencing the world’s very public mourning of Diana alongside my own private mourning was surreal, and given that Harry and I are the same age, I’ve always felt connected to him through our shared membership in the awful Young Dead Mothers Club. Harry’s openness about his struggles with depression is also something that greatly endears him to me; he is someone who I always make a point of “checking in with,” (via media coverage – don’t worry I’m not hiding in the bushes outside Kensington Palace), periodically to see how he is doing, because in a weird way, it reminds me to evaluate how I’m doing.

 

 

All that said, I do have to admit that the fact that Harry has chosen to marry Meghan Markle has raised him even more considerably in my esteem. It’s a big deal for someone in that family to marry someone like her – a biracial, once-divorced, American woman, who already had a successful career as an actress on the USA Network’s show Suits. And okay, let me be very, very clear here: as far as I am concerned, the operative word in that previous statement is “biracial.” It is a big, big fucking deal that Prince Harry has married someone who is half-black, precisely because of the long legacy of colonialism and oppression brought forth by the United Kingdom upon many, many nations populated by people of color. While I don’t love the egregious abuse Meghan received from the British media shortly after their relationship went public, I do love that Harry issued a statement explicitly calling out its sexism and racism, in those words. This kind of resolute forcefulness is not what we have come to expect from this family. The Windsors may be slow to change, but right now, we are seeing a huge seismic shift.

 

Look, I don’t even like weddings. I am a curmudgeon. I hate earnest performative displays of romantic love (I hate ironic performative displays of romantic love too). Watching people cry at weddings in particular, makes me irritable and eye-rolly. Super religious weddings (of any religion) make me uncomfortable, because I was raised in a Marxist family. But let me tell you, I was pretty damn invested in the Royal Wedding. And there were a few moments – like when Reverend Michael Curry gave his sermon on the redemptive power of love and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in the process, or when the gospel choir sang that stirring rendition of "Stand By Me" while Harry and Meghan stared at each other like a couple of heart-eyed emojis, or when Prince Charles very kindly offered his arm to Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland, who had her twists pulled back under a fabulous hat, as they went to witness the signing of the marriage registry – where I caught myself getting a bit teary.

 

Meghan Markle is the best thing that has happened to this family in a long time. Having her, as a woman of color, now within their ranks is one of the few things that may give the royals a shred of hope at remaining relevant in any way. The Windsors’ relationship with relevance has always been tenuous, and even more so during the years since Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952 in the diminished post-colonial version of Britain that emerged after World War II. The monarchy doesn’t have political power any longer; at this point, the only real value to anything the monarchy does is only symbolic.

 

But there’s power in symbolism. When I look at the official photographs from the wedding day released by the now-Duke and Duchess of Sussex, I can’t not notice that destabilizing shot of brown, from Meghan and her mother Doria, in a Royal Family picture. It’s amazing. I’m getting all weepy again.

 

 

It’s not the grand Hazza-and-Megs romance that’s making me cry, though I will admit they are nauseatingly adorable. I’m crying because I think it’s pretty damn cool to be able to look at Meghan Markle, now a representative of an institution that is arguably Britain’s biggest non-musical cultural export – and an institution that, not that long ago, was gleefully exploiting the natural resources and the people and the dignity of a country that I am directly descended from (my grandparents grew up under British rule, that’s how recent we’re talking) – and see someone whose skin looks like mine.

 

Representation matters.

 

Hold that thought.

 

*

 

The Simpsons has been on television nearly as long as Prince Harry and I have been alive. I think you probably know where I am going with this but in case you have been living under a rock since the 1980’s, here’s the deal: there is a character on The Simpsons named Apu. He’s a broad Indian stereotype in the worst way: a guy who owns a convenience store, speaks in a heavy accent, and is largely a buffoon. He is voiced by Hank Azaria – an immensely talented actor… who is white.

 

I have always felt fond of Apu – he was the only Indian guy on TV when I was growing up – but also disgusted by my fondness – he’s a cartoon voiced by a white guy. I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods, attending predominantly white schools, where I was often the only brown kid anyone knew, and it’s pretty astounding how many of my white friends thought it was funny to do that Apu voice at me, or were surprised that my mother was an attorney and my father has a PhD in English literature and now works in finance (I guess all Indian kids are supposed to come from Quik-E-Mart families?).

 

The comedian Hari Kondabolu dissected exactly how problematic and hurtful this was in his 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu, discussing his experiences being bullied growing up by white kids doing Apu impersonations at him, being insulted on behalf of his Indian immigrant parents – neither of whom behave like Apu – and speaking with many of the South Asian actors I mentioned earlier in this piece about how difficult it is trying to succeed in acting careers when everyone just wants them to behave like Apu. Kal Penn went so far as to say that he has never liked The Simpsons solely because Apu exists as a character.

 

Watching The Problem with Apu was both heartening and heartbreaking for me simultaneously. It was really powerful to see my feelings about Apu – right down to the experiences of being bullied as a kid by other kids using Apu against me – be echoed by so many others. But during the film, Kondabolu tries repeatedly to get in touch with Azaria through his agent to talk about Apu and, in the end, devastatingly gets turned down. Azaria felt that he would not get to have any control of how Kondabolu portrayed him in the documentary after their conversation. He apparently did not see the irony in that he was being asked to discuss how Kondabolu felt about not having any control over how people see him, because of the prevalence of the Apu stereotype. Kondabolu was gutted by this, and so was I. It’s just so fucking disappointing.

 

The production team behind The Simpsons has not handled this criticism well. Only a few weeks ago, they released a fairly tone-deaf episode that straight-up implied that any offense over Apu was just humorless, overly-PC hand wringing. This awful episode was absolutely dragged, and rightly so, by pretty much every media critic out there. Showrunner Al Jean doubled down on the episode’s message, depressingly tweeting articles from the extreme-right wing publication “National Review” defending the show. When you consider that The Simpsons was once seen as subversive and counter-cultural, this development is baffling.

 

But I really do believe that when a show has been on television for 29 years – The Simpsons recently broke Gunsmoke’s record to become the longest running scripted series in history – no matter how much they once challenged "The Establishment," at some point they became "The Establishment." The Simpsons is an institution, and because of that, the production team thinks they deserve a free pass to keep putting a racist caricature on screen, no matter how many people it hurts.

 

If there is one encouraging thing to come of this recent Simpsons brouhaha, it’s this: Hank Azaria appeared on Late Night with Stephen Colbert and said that he is listening. He understands that the way Apu is characterized is problematic. He is willing to step down from voicing Apu, and let a South Asian actor take his place, if that’s what it takes to start making things right.

 

Progress.

 

Hold that thought.

 

*

 

During the three days prior to being overtaken by Royal Wedding fervor, I was watching one movie teaser trailer over and over and over again: Bohemian Rhapsody, the upcoming Queen biopic.

 

I am so excited for this movie. Man oh man oh man, did they nail the look and sound of the band and the time period. And, of course, there is the brilliant Rami Malek playing Freddie Mercury. Malek is probably best known for his Emmy Award-winning performance as Elliot Alderson on the USA Network’s (huh) Mr. Robot.

 

I strongly suspect, though, that after this movie comes out on November 2nd, Freddie Mercury will be Malek’s career-defining role. I mean, just look at this trailer. He has his physicality and his attitude down perfectly. It’s uncanny.

 

 

There is a contingent of internet grumblers who are mad that Sacha Baron Cohen is not in this movie. Cohen originally signed to play Mercury, and left the film while it was still in development due to creative differences with the living members of Queen, who are all heavily involved in the production. People think that Cohen is a more accurate physical match for Mercury. I also suspect that people are assuming that the film will not be edgy, and will shy away from the darker aspects of Mercury’s life now that Cohen is no longer involved – though I really see no evidence that supports this theory based on a 2-minute teaser.

 

But to all that I say, bollocks. Bullshit. I am done, done, fucking DONE with watching white actors portray people of color in mainstream media. Done. The conversation about Apu and Azaria is extremely relevant here.

 

 

See, that’s the thing: I think many people don’t know, or often forget, (or conveniently forget) that Mercury was a person of color. He was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946, in the British protectorate of the Sultanate of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania). His parents were Parsis from the Gujarat region of the then-province of Bombay Presidency in British India. He spent most of his childhood in India and Zanzibar, and moved to England at the age of 17, where in college he met the other members of what became Queen. He was a British citizen by birth (a perk of being born during British colonial times), and he remained so for the rest of his life. He was British, yes, but he was also Indian. He was brown.

 

As a musician myself, Mercury is someone I deeply admire for his songwriting talent, his charisma and his staggering four-octave vocal range. But he is also someone I hold close to my heart as a fellow brown person. He is the only famous-in-the-mainstream rock and roll star of Indian origin that I know of. I love him, and I maybe want to be him; his overwhelming success during his tragically short life gives me the hope that maybe someday I can achieve some small fraction of that success myself. He makes me not want to give up on music the same way I gave up my theatrical ambitions in college.

 

 

And that’s why it is hugely important that he be portrayed, in what is likely to be the definitive movie chronicle of Queen’s history, by an actor of color from a similar ethnic background. No, Rami Malek isn’t a perfect fit – he is of Egyptian descent, not Indian, and he was raised Christian Orthodox, not Zoroastrian. But casting him is a damn sight better than Sacha Baron Cohen.

 

The story of Hank Azaria’s characterization of Apu on The Simpsons is that he was inspired by the 1968 Peter Sellers film The Party, in which Sellers, a white British actor, wore brown makeup to play an Indian man. You’ve heard of blackface, presumably, and why it’s bad? Well, this is brownface.

 

And Cohen as Mercury would also have been brownface.

 

This is not okay. It’s not okay at all. It’s 2018. We can do better. If Prince Harry can marry a woman with a black mother, surely we can avoid casting another white British actor and putting him in brownface, right?

 

When I watch the teaser trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody I get weepy, for the same reason why the Royal Wedding made me weepy. Seeing Malek in costume as Mercury – he looks so much like him, he’s got the mannerisms down, he’s got the accent, and in just a short 2 minutes I feel him inhabiting Mercury in a whole-bodied, hard-hitting way – I am struck by how powerful it is to see an actor on screen whose skin looks like mine, portraying a staggeringly brilliant musician who became world famous in spite of the fact that his skin looked like mine.

 

Progress. Representation matters. I’m not going to give up.

 

 

Reeya Banerjee

 

Reeya is the Operations Manager at Beacon Music Factory, an out-of-the-box music school in Beacon, NY. She has a tuxedo cat named Eliot, the Stig of Berkelac, and a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She usually can be seen singing and playing bass at BMF shows or drinking IPAs at Dogwood while reading pop culture news on her phone.

 

 

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