You know, looking back it’s kind of laughable that my original intention for this blog was to write about my screenwriting career. In two years I’ve written a grand total of three articles about my chosen career path. Hopefully the other 236 posts I’ve published weren’t too much of a distraction!
So I suppose a little catch up is required. Previous posts told of the shooting of my first ever short film, The Right Choice; as well as its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Overall The Right Choice has done pretty well on the festival circuit, having played at four Oscar-qualifying festivals, and been accepted into 30 further festivals across the world.
Truth be told, 2018 has been a little slower than I though it would be in terms of screenwriting career progress. While I’ve pumped out 6 short scripts, most of the year has been spent paying back the debts I accrued in order to complete The Right Choice. No regrets of course.
Still, there have been two bright spots, one of which is that a small production company called Upwall Pictures has read some of my work and have expressed an interest in producing a few scripts. (It’s a terrible photo, I know!)
The second bright spot… Well, it’s a long story.
For those of you not up to date with The Simpsons TV show, last year there was a bit of a commotion over the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. An American comedian called Hari Kondabolu released a 45 minute documentary called “The Problem With Apu“; in which he criticised the portrayal of the Kwik-E-Mart owner.
Though I wrote an article about it at the time and stated my intention to view the documentary as soon as possible; residing in the U.K. unfortunately makes it impossible to access, even a year later.
One of the many reactions to the documentary was that movie producer Adi Shanker (of Dredd and the “Bootleg Universe” fame) decided to launch an unofficial screenwriting competition in an attempt to crowdsource a script that would take Apu in a new direction. He offered to take the winning script to The Simpsons writers; but if they refused it he would make it himself as part of his Bootleg Universe.
Now I’m going to be honest here, but I don’t agree with Shanker that “The Simpsons is sick” or that the portrayal of Apu is a “mean-spirited mockery.” And from the various clips I’ve seen of The Problem With Apu, I strongly anticipate that I wouldn’t agree with Kondabolu’s opinion of the character either. I like Apu and consider him to be a beloved character that I’ve enjoyed watching for many years.
But as an aspiring screenwriter how could I not take advantage of this opportunity? After all, all good writers should be able to write for subjects they don’t personally agree with. I’m pretty sure Thomas Harris isn’t a secret lover of human flesh, despite him creating the world’s most famous cannibal in Hannibal Lector!
So I took a chance and spent a few weeks writing “Life of Apu” (LoA). And though it took quite a while, LoA was eventually selected as a finalist (and in turn became the above mentioned second bright spot!) I’m not entirely sure how big of an achievement becoming a finalist was, especially since I have no idea how many finalists were selected, or even how many total entries were received. But at least it was an acknowledgement that I had written something worth reading.
Alas the script did not progress to actually win the competition, which now leaves me with a Simpsons script gathering dust. So I thought I would throw it out to all of you to enjoy. Below is a little more about how I came up with the idea and my process of writing, but if you’d just like to read the script here’s the link: Life of Apu
(In fact, what’s written below might make a hell of a lot more sense after you’ve read the script. Also, when you click on the link, you don’t have to sign up for Dropbox. Just click the No Thanks button at the bottom of the popup)
The seed of LoA was planted sometime in 2012/2013 while I was reading Apu’s Wikipedia page. Specifically I focused on the following line:
He graduated first in his class of seven million at ‘Caltech’ — Calcutta Technical Institute — going on to earn his doctorate at the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology.
I ended up misunderstanding the above line as it gave me the impression that these were two separate events. Basically Apu had come top of his class, came to America for some undisclosed reason, and only then decided to study for a Ph.D.
However, I now know that the episode Homer and Apu (Season 5, Episode 13) makes it clear that these events are connected, in that Apu specifically came to America to study for his doctorate. Yet being that the episode was broadcast in 1994, and I hadn’t seen a repeat in years, I assumed for far too long that there was some kind of untold story about Apu’s journey to America.
To be fair to myself that is technically true, as no episode has focused specifically on said journey. But I would spend the next 5-6 years checking the synopsis of each new Simpsons episode, wondering when the writers would tell this undisclosed tale.
That said, this desire to see Apu’s journey was nowhere near the forefront of my mind when Shankar launched the contest. Instead I planned to approach the screenplay according to the stated objectives given in the description of the competition:
“We are looking for a screenplay centering on the character “Apu” set in the world and cannon of The Simpsons that takes the character of Apu and in a clever way subverts him, pivots him, intelligently writes him out, or evolves him in a way that takes a mean spirited mockery and transforms him into a kernel of truth wrapped in funny insight aka actual satire.”
In other words they were looking for the actual character of Apu to permanently change for future episodes. But this fundamentally goes against the very core of The Simpsons in that once an episode ends, everything resets. I won’t deny that some changes have been set in stone (usually with character deaths). But for the most part, attempts to make major changes to the core of a character or to continuity is usually met with derision from fans. I still remember the public uproar when Seymour Skinner was discovered to actually be Armin Tamzarian in Season 9’s The Principal and the Pauper; or when a failed attempt was made to move Homer and Marge’s romance to the 1990s in Season 19’s That ’90s Show.
So my dilemma was this: How do I change the character of Apu without changing the character of Apu?
I quickly realised that the best way to do this was not to change the character, BUT instead change audience’s perception of the character. That may sound like it’s the same thing, but there are huge differences between the two. The former is a purposeful change, moving the character from one depiction to another. But the latter is done by presenting previously unknown information in order to influence the audience’s perspective; all the while keeping the character exactly the same.
The natural fallout of this decision meant that I couldn’t tell a story in the present day. Instead I had to set the story somewhere in the past. And that was my eureka moment. Here was a chance to tell that story I wanted about Apu’s journey to America, and yet still evolve the character in some positive way.
This may be surprising to some, but I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what South Asians or Indian-Americans would think. When writing the screenplay the main priority were Simpsons fans. You may wonder why, considering the reasons why this entire endeavour kicked off. Nonetheless I realised that, even if by some miracle my script become a finalist, won the competition, was accepted by The Simpsons writers, and became a critically and publicly acclaimed episode; none of this would lead to an increase in Indian-American viewers. Sure they would watch for that one episode, but there is no way that there would be a significant increase of people watching the show. (Especially considering Indian-Americans only make up just over 1% of the American population.) But the 2-6 million people that watch The Simpsons every week? They’re the ones who are spending their time and money supporting the show.
Because of this somewhat skewed priority, mixed in with my own beliefs, it meant that LoA purposely did not address many of the issues that Kondabolu or Shankar had a problem with. For example, I made no mention of Apu’s accent or his name. Neither did I address the idea of characters being voiced by actors who are of a different race. In fact, Apu barely changes at all. He’s still a simple Kwik-E-Mart owner when the credits roll. Considering the contest objectives clearly stated they wanted Apu to change, it’s somewhat surprising (hell, a borderline miracle) that I even became a finalist.
(I suppose this technically makes me a terrible screenwriter as I ended up writing something that completely ignored the stated stipulations.)
Instead I focused on one issue that I definitely agreed with: that the success of Apu had a negative effect on how Hollywood and the U.K. chose to portray South Asians over the last 30 years. But I don’t believe this is the fault of The Simpsons. This is the fault of numerous writers, directors and casting directors outside of The Simpsons who have chosen to rely only on that one cartoon portrayal. As a result, the insane difficulty that South Asian actors and actresses must overcome ended up becoming the emotional centre of the story. To illustrate the South Asian desire to have new experiences and to stretch yourself in an acting world that is satisfied to merely pigeonhole you.
With all that said, there was still one other aspect that was crucial. It was important to me for Apu to remain a Kwik-E-Mart owner and not suddenly become a wealthy or successful man.
“Sacrilege!” I hear you cry. “Racist!” I hear you roar. But there is a method to my madness. There’s a reason why Forbes’ “The World’s Billionaires” list is one of the most widely anticipated publications every year. It’s because, unfortunately, we live in a world where the accumulation of wealth trumps everything else. Where being a good person or being a great family man is not considered a sign of being a “success”.
While it was important to me to show that it was okay to spend your life being a shop owner (as I’ve known many real life people to do so); it was also essential that Apu was considered a success because of how he treated his family. It wasn’t about the number of shops he owns or the number of buildings that have his name on them (as Kondabolu has stated he would like to see). Instead I wanted to show that true success is about looking after those you love and making sure you do everything you can to make them a success. Just like my grandparents did for my parents. Just like my parents did for me. And, maybe one day, what I will do for my children. It’s why, along with the South Asian actor problems I mentioned above, LoA very heavily focuses on family and the sacrifices we make to ensure that those we love can lead better lives than we did. The true definition of “success.”
I am, however, still in two minds about the script’s comedy. I am not a comedian. I can’t tell a joke to save my life, so just imagine how bad I am at writing one. So I’ll leave it up to much wiser people than I to determine whether or not I was successful. (Again, here’s the link: Life of Apu)
Still, LoA ended up being a most enjoyable pitstop on that long windy road to screenwriting success and I hope to do it again sometime.
Until next time, my screenwriting fellows.