It happens like clockwork. Every couple of months someone associated with “The Simpsons” reveals just how much Hari Kondabolu’s “The Problem With Apu” has gotten under their skin. This time it was series creator Matt Groening, who in a recent interview with the New York Times gave a series of rambling answers when asked about the rightful gripe people have with this stereotypical character.
What struck us immediately was a section in which Groening essentially dares critics to name a better Indian animated character. “I go, maybe he’s a problem, but who’s better?” he asked in his response. “Who’s a better Indian animated character in the last 30 years?”
Well, we do love a good challenge, Matt Groening.
Yes, “The Simpsons” is insanely popular, which means they shoulder more responsibility to bring us inclusive, accurate representation. Instead, the creator has dismissed concerns about the impact of Apu.
We’ve rounded up four Indian animated characters who aren’t afflicted with the stereotype syndrome like Apu. Among other things, each of the characters below are fully realized people whose creators strive to make them about more than just their ethnicity.
Sanjay Patel, “Sanjay and Craig”
Voiced by Maulik Pancholy, Sanjay Patel is a typical 12-year-old boy except for one thing — he has a talking snake named Craig. Pancholy is among the many Indian-American actors who appeared in Kondabolu’s Apu documentary and when “Sanjay and Craig” premiered in 2013, he noted the importance of younger South Asian-Americans getting to see characters that looked like them.
“The cool thing about kids’ shows is that it creates a space where kids can escape into this imaginative world and they become cartoon characters in a way,” he noted to India West in 2013. As an added bonus in terms of Indian characters voiced by Indian actors, Sanjay’s father on the show was portrayed by “The Big Bang Theory” actor Kunal Nayyar.
Connie Maheswaran, “Steven Universe”
Connie is a beloved character among “Steven Universe” fans. Introverted and fiercely intelligent, she is also often lonely because of her personality and because she’s spent much of her childhood moving from place to place.
Sally Bollywood, “Sally Bollywood: Super Detective”
This French-Australian animated series revolves around Sally Bollywood, a young girl who lives in the diverse, fictional city of Cosmopolis. The daughter of a private detective named Harry Bollywood, Sally decides to start a detective agency of her own called Sally Bollywood Investigations (which is marvelously abbreviated to SBI.) It’s through the SBI that Sally investigates crimes like finding out who broke the windows at her elementary school.
Jo Misra, “Famous 5: On The Case”
For a certain percentage of the South Asian diaspora, reading Enid Blyton’s series “The Famous Five” is a right of passage. In 2008, the franchise was revived in the form of an animated series revolving around the children of the original characters. The most intriguing member of the new “Famous 5” was Jo Misra, the Anglo-Indian daughter of the irrepressible George Kirrin. (It turns out that our favorite tomboy ended up marrying an Indian man named Ravi that she met while in the Himalayas.)
“Because George was such an intrepid explorer in the original novels we thought it would be only natural that she travelled to India, to the Himalayas, where she fell in love with Ravi. That’s the backstory (to Jo),” producer Jeff Norton told the BBC when the show was announced.
Enid Blyton purists were horrified at the modernizing touches made to the series, but Norton took the barbs in stride. “We spoke to Enid Blyton’s daughter and she thought her mother would love what we have done,” he said.