South Asians in America: Mainstream Culture and The Foreign Innocent

(Counterclockwise) Apu in the Simpsons, Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit, Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards on the set of The Party. Short Circuit photo from Starring The Computer. Sellers-Edwards photo from Taste of Cinema.

Since the immigration act of 1924 limited the number of South Asians who could come to the United States, the mainstream media tended to present a simplistic version of first generation Indian immigrants. However, the overturning of the 1924 act’s policies in 1965 did not change the portrayal of South Asians that much.

Before the immigration act of 1924, there was the landmark case of Thind vs. The United States. An Indian immigrant who served in the United States army in World War I, Bhagat Singh Thind became a naturalized United States citizen in 1919. He did this by claiming to be white (a requirement for Naturalization since 1790) by citing the scientific classification of white at the time. However, the courts revoked his citizenship as he did not meet their criteria of white. When the Nye-Lea act of 1935 passed, it allowed World War I veterans to become naturalized citizens regardless of race. As a result, Thind became a citizen and lived in the United States until his death in 1967.

For nearly a century afterwards, mainstream American media rarely considered first generation South Asian immigrants Americans. In comedies, white Americans would often portray such characters. Above all, the traits of the characters would revolve around their foreign qualities.

Before 1965

Before the 1960’s, most South Asians were represented by white actors in Brown makeup. Tyrone Power played the role of an Indian doctor in The Rains Came (1939). Richard Burton reprised Power’s role in the remake The Rains of Ranchipur (1955). Ava Gardner appeared in Bhowani Junction (1956)). Errol Flynn starred in Kim (1950) as an Indian.

As one of the few Indian actors in America, Sabu often portrayed the Jungle Boy character he played in England. In America, he also tended to appear in lesser known films. In his last role, he played an Indian Tiger trainer in the Disney film A Tiger Walks (1964).

Besides the fact that South Asians played none of these roles, all these films told stories about the British occupation of India. Both Kim and Bhowani Junction come from books by British authors who wrote extensively about India. Rundyard Kipling wrote the novel for Kim (1901), while John Masters wrote the novel for Bhowani Junction (1954).

The Foreign Innocent and The Best Friend

In American comedy, Indians tended to be portrayed as a stock character that this article will refer to as the foreign innocent. This character can come from anywhere, but they cannot conform to the narrative’s definition of “American.” Often designed by American born actors and filmmakers, jokes about them usually involve the foreigner playing an American. This usually comes out in a few ways:

  1. When not representing Indians, this character tends to come from a fictional country. This means they do not represent any specific group, but rather the concept of foreignness itself.
  2. Mistakes in language often play a huge role in the characterization. The character often uses malapropisms (the mistaken use of a word for a similar sounding word, often for unintentional comic effect).
  3. While the narrative presents the character’s culture as noble, it also presents it as impossible for Americans to understand. As a result, the creative choices tend to reflect this idea. The Character tends to have a made up unpronounceable name. The character’s home is also often an exotic colorful location that sharply contrasts the narrative’s definition of “American.”
  4. The narrative tends to connect the character to a job considered menial or old fashioned. Examples include store clerk or sheepherder. The character also tends to like this job.
  5. The character’s background tends to fluctuate the most. The character can come from a background ranging from rich to poor. If the character has children, they tend to have a freakish number of children. If they have a pet, it is an exotic pet, like a monkey or a snake.
  6. A subcategory of the Fish out of Water story, the Foreign Innocent usually returns to his original culture at the end. This maintain their status quo as a foreigner. They rarely integrate into American society or have a full character arc.

Great examples of this character include Prince Akeem of Zamunda (Eddie Murphy) from Coming to America (1988) and Viktor Navorski of Krakozhia (Tom Hanks) in The Terminal (2004).

In both films, the narrative sees these characters as naïve and childlike. In The Terminal, Viktor starts out as playing what he thinks an American would be. This includes asking where he can buy “the Nike shoes.” He learns the culture through very simplistic means. When his love interest buys a large book on Napoleon, Viktor reads a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990). In Coming to America, Prince Akeem tries to play an American on multiple occasions. This includes talking to his boss about American Football:

Both of these characters also come from fictional countries in movies that exist as comedy fairytales. In Coming to America, the country of Zamunda exists outside of slavery and colonialism. The opening credits make a point that the kingdom is nestled away from civilization. Since Viktor cannot return to Krakozhia (which only appears on TV), he creates a home in the airport. In a gift to his love interest, he replaces the drinking fountains with a unique fountain he specially designed. Neither of these countries exist in the real world.

In both stories, the lead character returns home to their original country after accomplished a goal. Prince Akeem always intends to return to Zamunda after finding a new bride. Viktor returns to Krakozhia after fulfilling a wish of his father. Neither sees themselves as an American. They only visit the country as part of a personal mission.

Unlike these characters, many of the Indian characters exist as the best friend of the leading character. In Hollywood storytelling, the friend exists to contrast the lead character. If the narrative sees the hero as relatable, the best friend represents what might offend a mainstream audience. In most roles, they exist to help the hero achieve their goals and provide comic relief. If the hero acts as the romantic lead, the best friend often will just want to have sex. The narrative frames these characters as acceptable to laugh at due to either their strangeness or their attitudes.

A great example of the foreign innocent as the best friend comes in Perfect Strangers (1986-1993). In that show, Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot) comes from the fictional Mediterranean island of Mypos. He plays comedy relief for his distant relative Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker, who had played an everyman thrown together with an eccentric outsider in My Favorite Year (1982)). When he heads for America in the opening credits, he carries a box that says “America or burst” (instead of “America or bust”). If Larry wears a normal suit, Balki will wear a suit lederhosen combo. If Larry wears adult pajamas, Larry will wear a pair of Spiderman pajamas. These details define Larry as the relatable everyman and Balki as the “other” that the audience laughs at.

Both of these types of characters come into play when discussing South Asian characters in mainstream film. Unlike the examples above, there was one key difference. When a narrative used these archetypes for South Asians, it represented real underrepresented people with simplistic types.

Blake Edwards and ‘The Party’

According to actress Lesley Anne Down, director Blake Edwards just wanted to have fun. He would purposefully ruin takes to get actors to laugh. When a sequence required a party in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), Edwards literally threw a party and filmed the results.

A fan of silent films and former writer for radio, Edwards did not consider anything off limits as long as he considered it fun at the time. That included Orientalism becoming a motif in many of his films. This is admitted by biographers Peter Lehman and William Luhr in their book Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Volume 2 (1989). Breakfast featured Mickey Rooney playing the character of Mr. Yunioshi in yellowface. In the Breakfast at Tiffany’s documentary Making a Classic, Edwards later came to somewhat regret this. S.O.B. (1980) features Benson Fong as the irate Chinese family cook and Larry Storch as an Indian Swami. Blind Date (1987) has frustrated nerd Bruce Willis’s boss meeting with the most stereotypical of Japanese businessmen. Edwards presents none of these characters in a sympathetic light..

There are also less conspicuous examples of this in many Edwards films, such as John Ritter dressing up as Aladdin in Skin Deep (1989) and the lead characters going to see a performance of Madame Butterfly in Victor/Victoria (1980). A Fine Mess (1986) features Howie Mandel screaming after having spicy food at an Indian restaurant.

On top of that, Edwards had a tumultuous relationship with the comically gifted yet unstable British comedian Peter Sellers. A musician and radio actor who transferred to film, Sellers began all of his roles by finding a voice. In an interview, he contrasted himself with Alec Guinness, who would start with physical traits.

After working with Sellers on the first two Pink Panther films, Edwards came up with a new project. Sellers would play an incompetent outsider attending a Hollywood party. After a day of filming, Sellers found that he needed a voice. Sellers came up with Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi for Edwards’s The Party (1968). With that decision made, Sellers went on to play the role in brown face. Sellers had previously played an Indian in The Millionairess (1962). During his time in Hollywood, he starred as an Indian in The Party and The Road to Hong Kong (1962).

Bakshi fits neatly into the foreign innocent role. He has a pet monkey, lives an exotic lifestyle, and seems completely oblivious to Western customs. He also plays the sitar. The film portrays Bakshi as living in a cottage surrounded by lush flowers. His wood furniture contrasts with the ultramodern couches and chairs at the party that Bakshi goes to. The Hollywood elite at the party also find Bakshi impossible to understand. His love interest in the movie calls him “a very nice man with an unpronounceable name.” At the end of the film, Bakshi returns to his culture by going home to feed his pet monkey.

Although Sellers created the character, Edwards designed how to present him. In John Cork’s documentary Inside the Party, Edwards said that he wanted Bakshi “to be so abrasive and so genuinely decent and not wanting to hurt anybody that all he did was fuck things up because we all have a little bit of that in us.” In his book Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers (2002), Sellers biographer Ed Sikov describes Bakshi in the following way: “clad in a pale lavender suit, bright red socks, and white shoes, Hrundi Bakshi is essentially a one-man subcontinental minstrel show, though a sympathetic one.” (Sikov 268). Like many of these roles, the film presents Bakshi as a child in a man’s body. In a dinner scene, Bakshi wears a bib and sits in a chair that shrinks him.

Fisher Stevens and ‘Short Circuit’

Fisher Stevens played a similar character in brown makeup in Short Circuit (1986). In this role, Stevens plays lovable Scientist Newton Crosby’s (Steve Guttenberg) horny best friend and assistant Ben Jabituya. He constantly talks to Crosby about chasing tail. When their war robot comes alive and escapes, Crosby and Jabituya set out to bring them back. During their adventure, Crosby becomes attracted to his robot’s new friend Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). The film ends with Crosby, Speck, and the robot (now named Johnny 5) driving off into the sunset.

Filmmakers had originally written the Stevens role as a WASP. An English born American, director John Badham suggested making the role Indian. With that decision, he fired Stevens, and hired Perfect Strangers star Bronson Pinchot to replace him. After the production fired Pinchot, they brought back Stevens again. A method actor at the time, Stevens went to India and studied Hindi for the role. This apparently fooled some people when Stevens was mistaken for Indian actor Javed Jaffrey. When asked about the character being offensive, Badham responded that people were overly sensitive.

The filmmakers upgraded Ben to a lead character when Guttenberg would not return for Short Circuit 2 (1986). The second film also retcons the character from the first film, making him more of a romantic lead. The filmmakers go as far as to change his name from Ben Jabituya to Ben Jahveri. Newton served as the awkward Romantic dreamer in the original. In this film, Ben takes over Newton’s role and Fred Ritter (Michael McKean) serves as the best friend.

The second film presents Ben as more of an awkward teenager than a full-grown man. Ben finds love with Sandy Banatoni (Cynthia Gibb), who wants to mass produce miniature versions of Johnny 5 for her company. When Ben goes takes Sandy to dinner, Johnny 5 coaches him using an electric sign and a teenage dating guide.

This sequel has a subplot about Ben becoming a naturalized citizen. Throughout the film, Ben can be seen studying. The film ends with Ben and Johnny 5 becoming citizens in a big ceremony. However, since Johnny 5 is the true star of the movie, he gets the primary focus of this scene.

With the influx of South Asians in America, popular culture quickly paired Indian characters with certain jobs. Of these jobs, films tended to feature many convenience store clerks and cab drivers.

Apu and ‘The Simpsons’

Probably one of the most prominent examples of this character comes from The Simpsons (1989- ). Indian immigrant Apu Nahasapeemapetalon (voiced by American Actor Hank Azaria) shares many traits with this character. He works as a convenience store clerk, has an unpronounceable last name, and exists primarily as a foreigner.

Like the previous characters, the majority of jokes about Apu revolve around him being (A) foreign and (B) Indian. Unlike the previous characters, Apu became the primary representation of South Asians on television in the 1990s. He lived on the Simpsons for three decades before the series indefinitely retired him to the background in 2016. No character of South Asian heritage had experienced this many life events in front of a mainstream audience. No character had gone through as many iterations either. With Apu, one has to take into account all the inconsistent creative choices made over thirty seasons.

When the show needed a convenience store clerk for a brief joke, they wrote a few lines. Simpsons writer Mike Reiss says that he wrote not to make the clerk Indian, only to have Azaria read it in the accent. Somebody else later told Reiss that late Showrunner Sam Simon suggested making him Indian. Azaria himself said that the producers asked him to make the accent as stereotypical as possible.

From there, the character came out of the writer’s knowledge of India’s culture and people. The last name comes from Simpsons writer Jeff Martin combining the first and last name of an Indian classmate. The first name came from the famous Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray. Azaria based Apu’s voice on Hrundi V. Bakshi and a Seven Eleven clerk he knew. In reality, Ray had met Sellers during his brief Hollywood career. He found his portrayal of Indians distasteful.

With this method of working, one can find a slightly different version of Apu in each episode. His first appearance presents him as an annoyed clerk similar to the ones in Encino Man (1992).

“Much Apu about Nothing” portrays him as coming from a poor rural village. After graduating from the top of his class at Caltech (Calcutta Technical institute), he earns a computer degree from the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology and overstays his student visa. This episode most closely resembles Ray’s Apu trilogy in terms of characterization and design.

The 2015 episode “Sky Police” significantly retcons “Much Apu about Something.” In a parody of the film 21 (2009), Apu counts cards while at MIT (the Mumbai institute of tantric sex). With his winnings, he buys SAT scores that get him into the real MIT. Consequently, he flunks out and gets thrown out by a Johnny 5 type robot. Apu tells both stories and have the same basic beats, but with wildly different results. In one, Apu is a college graduate who created a computer program. In the other, he is a failure who had to move to Springfield out of financial obligation. The only consistent factor with Apu is that he’s foreign and does not fit into the American culture.

It remains practically impossible to do an analysis of Apu without it turning into a list of inconsistent traits. Indian characters around him change ages, appearances, and backgrounds based on the narrative of the episode. In her first appearance, Apu’s wife Manjula is significantly younger than him. In her next appearance, the series made them both roughly the same age.

Although the series mostly use Apu as part of a joke, it also dedicated a few episodes to him. With these episodes, there is a specific formula to the episodes that shape his character:

  1. Apu becomes the center of attention for some reason
  2. This newfound attention conflicts with his culture, forcing him to make a difficult decision
  3. he returns to his culture at the end of the episode

Not every episode follows this formula to the letter, but they mostly follow the basic beats. Each episode usually has Apu experiencing a major life event that drives the story.

“Homer and Apu”

  1. Apu gets fired from the Kwik-e-mart for selling expired food.
  2. After moving in with the Simpsons, he tries to readjust to life outside of the Kwik-e-mart, but find he cannot.
  3. He returns to his former job by committing a heroic act.

In this episode, Apu becomes a member of the Simpson family, complete with two hugs at the end.

“Much Apu About Nothing”

  1. When the mayor decides to scapegoat immigrants, Apu has his status as an illegal immigrant discovered.
  2. In order to stay in the country, Apu pretends to be a stereotypical American.
  3. Apu finds a way to become a citizen without betraying his culture.

“The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetalons”

  1. Apu becoming popular in the singles’ life,
  2. Unfortunately, his arranged marriage conflict with his social life. He pretends to be married to another woman (Marge), but his mother finds out.
  3. He decides to marry his bride, Manjula.

This episode views an arranged marriage as a business arrangement between two families which happens shortly after Apu’s eighth birthday.

Apu also falls into the foreign innocent archetype when he comes home to Marge and plays the old fashioned American husband by saying, “Honey, I’m in my home.”

After he and Manjula have eight babies in “Eight Misbehavin’,” the episode focuses on…

  1. Apu puts his children in a zoo.
  2. He finds that the zoo wants to exploit them for entertainment purposes.
  3. With Homer, he tries to bring the octuplets home by any means necessary.

While the Simpson family births are often portrayed in a sweet sentimental fashion, raising children with Apu and Manjula appears freakish and animalistic. Even before Apu literally puts his children in a zoo, there is a scene where Apu feeds all eight of his children in the same way a dog would feed a litter of puppies. This viewpoint of Apu and his children would re-appear several more times. “The Sweetest Apu” portrays the children hissing like snakes when their father leaves. In “The Island of Doctor Hibbert” segment of “Treehouse of Horror XIII,” Dr. Hibbert turns Apu into an opossum carrying his offspring around on his back.

“The Sweetest Apu”

  1. Apu cheats on his wife with an attractive Squishee lady.
  2. He gets kicked out of his house for it.
  3. He pays penance to return home.

In this episode, the Squishee Lady is portrayed as a blonde temptress. Apu solves the problem by hiring an unattractive Smooshy salesman.

“Much Apu About Something”

  1. Apu has his store destroyed by a tank
  2. His nephew Jamshed renovates his store into a more progressive operation, which conflicts with Apu’s identity.
  3. wins back his store with a winning lottery ticket.

Like “Homer and Apu,” being a convenience store clerk is connected to being Indian. In this episode, Apu appears to be older and carries a cane for an injury. He was an extra in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984), which would put him in his forties (at the very least). Unlike his uncle, Jamshed has a different set of business practices (“I bitchslapped your store into the 21st century.”)

This is the nearest one can come to a biography of Apu. However, major details of the character change throughout the show.

How Americans see Apu

The American characters find Apu’s culture difficult to understand. In separate episodes, Indian food and music prove too intense for Americans.

“Homer and Apu” presents a great example of this. After Apu gets fired because of Homer, he confronts Homer at his house. Apu reaches up his hands as if to strangle Homer, but it turns out that this is an Indian apology. A similar joke would later be used for the friendly aliens in Scary Movie 3 (2003):

Similarly, American characters on the show tend to find Apu’s full name impossible to understand or pronounce. In one episode, Wiggum refuses to arrest Homer for Apu’s murder because he cannot pronounce his name. In another, Apu sells out by simplifying his unreal last name for a record producer.

Apu as a Recurring joke

Despite all these storylines, Apu probably remained the character that the writers kept calling back for jokes. The writers always created many jokes based on India, including the many arms on Vishnu, arranged marriages, and reincarnation. They also called him back for song numbers including a bit where he sings, “For no reason, here’s Apu.”

His catchphrase (“Thank you, come again”) became one of the show’s running jokes. This ranged from him saying it to diffuse an awkward situation to him playing a confederate soldier (and saying “the south will come again” in the same tone).

India in ‘The Simpsons’

During Apu’s time on the show, America’s relationship with India changed radically. With these changes came a new version of India in each episode. Each portrayal does not represent the real India, but America’s version of India.

The early portrayals of India have a sparse nature to them. In “Homer and Apu”, India is portrayed as a mythical mountainous landscape similar to Black Narcissus (1948). When Homer and Apu walk across a dessert, the Lawrence of Arabia (1962) theme plays. The trains are so full that Homer and Apu have to comically hang off the side. In “Much Apu about Nothing,” Apu lives in a poor village consisting of buildings with many rounded or Taj Mahal shaped windows. Cows drink from a stream nearby. “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons” has one scene set in India. In a flashback, Apu’s parents arrange his marriage at a remote gazebo surrounded by a few mountains, trees, and peacocks. The sky is pink and yellow instead of the normal blue. A sitar plays in the background. Each of these portrayals present the country based on a few key locations.

The Simpsons episodes from the 1990’s and early 2000’s portray Indian architecture as beginning and ending the Taj Mahal. This includes the doorways in Apu’s multiple homes, the Airport in “Homer and Apu,” and the university in “Much Apu about Nothing.”

The season 17 episode “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore” involves Homer having his job outsourced to India. It portrays India more like a real place than a series of set pieces. The city that Homer lands in has more diversity in terms of building structure. However, unlike the diametrical design of Springfield, everything in India has a rounded design. The power plant in the city Homer goes to also is shaped like the Taj Mahal.

Legacy

Like many characters on successful shows, The Simpsons also influenced many shows of its era. In the mid 1990’s through the early 2000s, the archetype of the Foreign Innocent related to characters in sitcoms.

Some characters were Indian. These included Asok (Tom Kenny) from the Dilbert comic strip and TV series (1999-2000) and Taj Mahal (Kal Penn) from Van Wilder (2003). As a character, Asok serves as the most naïve employee in the company.

In Van Wilder, Taj serves as Van Wilder’s (Ryan Reynolds) assistant. Played by an American actor of Indian descent, Taj is a very broad role that serves as comedy relief. Like many best friend characters, Taj has come to America to have sex.

Apu’s influence spread across the board of broad sitcoms until the early 2000’s. Even if the character of Fez from That 70’s Show (1998-2006) comes from a fictional unnamed poverty stricken country, he seems to be inspired by Apu. Just like Apu, he’s a good natured naïve character. It’s also worth noting that a character like Fez also did not appear as a lead in shows like Happy Days (1974-1984), All in the Family (1971-1979) or the other shows that influenced That 70’s Show. He came specifically from 90’s Sitcom writing. Even Abed on Community (2009-2015) feels like a descendent of this character. However, Community implies that his innocence comes from autism rather than from his country of origin.

Controversy

For over twenty-five years, the character of Apu existed with little media scrutiny. This changed as second generation South Asian children grew up and became prominent voices in the entertainment field.

When the staff of The Simpsons decided to address the Apu controversy in 2016, they created an episode (“Much Apu About Something”) about Apu’s now adult nephew Jamshed (voiced by Utkarsh Ambudkar). In the episode, Jamshed criticizes Apu as a stereotype. After that, the show quietly retired him to the background like they did with Phil Hartman’s characters after his death. Apu would remain there for the next few years, only to pop up for the occasional visual gags and background appearance.

In The Problem with Apu (2017), Ambudkar admitted feeling disappointed with the episode. It minimized any conflict by featuring many other stereotypical characters pointing out that every Simpsons character is a stereotype.

In 2017, TruTV released The Problem with Apu. It told the story of comedian Hari Kondabolu’s quest to meet Hank Azaria to discuss the character and his impact. The Simpsons had a mixed response to it. In order to remedy the situation quickly, the episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” featured Lisa saying that it was hard to discuss what to do about a “politically incorrect” character. The episode met with an angry response from critics. In response to this episode, Azaria said that he would gladly step aside. Like John Badham before him, Simpsons creator Matt Groening brushed any concerns off as political correctness gone berserk.

Unlike all of the characters like this, Apu had lasted for over twenty-five years. He still exists on the show without Azaria performing the voice.

Conclusion

The narrative of the Foreign Innocent focuses on somebody not being an American. Instead of diving into reality, it strictly looks at foreigners from a simplified perspective.

Trivia

  • In the mid-1970’s, Blake Edwards became a father again when he adopted two daughters from Vietnam with wife Julie Andrews. He was in his mid-fifties at the time. This is covered in the Biography special “Blake Edwards: Calling the Shots.”
  • Around the same time of the Simpsons’s peak popularity in America, the BBC produced a sketch show called Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2001). The show’s title and theme song come from a novelty song from The Millionairess (1962), which also starred Peter Sellers as an Indian character. The show’s title was also originally going to be “Peter Sellers is Dead” in order to connote that the days of white actors playing minority roles in makeup had come to an end, but decided to name it after the song instead.