Long story short: Shrey Bhargava, a Singaporean Indian actor who went for the Ah Boys To Men 4 audition happening over the May 27 to 28 weekend, has taken to Facebook to express his disappointment and outrage over his experience.
This was after he was asked to ham it up during the audition to play up his Indian accent, and possibly, his mannerisms, for the role of an Indian soldier.
And his post has exploded online, as a polarising debate has ensued around his claims of racism, because there are those who fully agree with him and there are those who fully disagree. Both sides are equally compelling.
But first, this is the post in full:
In summary, his main gripe was:
- He was asked to speak with a fuller Indian accent despite being able to speak in Singlish like a true blue Singaporean.
- He felt he was reduced to a caricature of his race as not all Indians speak with an over-the-top Indian accent.
- Even though he had qualms speaking in a fuller Indian accent as instructed, he did it anyways but felt terrible afterwards, attributing his acquiescence to having internalised casual racism.
- He believes it is time for Singapore to move on and make mainstream movies that do not perpetuate stereotypes for the entertainment of others, namely, the majority race.
For and against
And boy, has the liveliest debate of 2017 come to life.
For the people who agree with Shrey, his post makes absolutely perfect sense.
- The reason Ah Boys To Men is being made to showcase stereotypical characters and consumed as regular entertainment is because audiences have come to expect these sorts of characters in a Jack Neo-directed movie. It is a perpetuating cycle.
- The power relations in the Ah Boys To Men audition is clearly one where Chinese people get to demand someone in the minority to behave in a way that the majority is familiar with. If the tables are turned, imagine a Chinese person going for an audition and asked to play up "Chinese traits", such as squatting, spitting on the floor and talking loudly with no sense of personal space. How would that make Chinese people feel?
- The root of casual racism stems from how people who perpetuate it do not even recognise that they are perpetuating it, owing to their privilege. Casual racism and privilege is playing out in full force in the comments section of Shrey's post.
- The concept of Singaporean-ness is malleable enough for it to be determined by the majority race.
However, the disagreements with Shrey's post have also been as hard-hitting.
- Actors are actors because they are supposed to portray characters as imagined by the scriptwriters and the director. The backbone of cinema is built on stereotypes: Half of Russia is definitely not filled with Special Forces and spies, but the sheer quantity of Hollywood movies playing up those roles might have convinced you otherwise.
- For an Indian to feel disgusted to be asked to speak in a fuller Indian accent is in itself a form of racism. Because why should Shrey feel insulted to speak in a manner that is reflective of the way other real Indians speak? Should those who do speak in a fuller Indian accent be silenced from now on in Singapore-made movies?
- Shrey's post is by someone who is easily triggered and the supporters of his post are hypersensitive Social Justice Warriors dabbling in identity politics, which is part of the politically-correct movement that believes sticks and stones can break your bones and words can also hurt you.
- Shrey was also being presumptuous for assuming there was implied racism just because he was asked if he is a local the moment he stepped into the audition. That question could have been asked as an "equal opportunities" offer: Even if the actor auditioning isn't local, assistance will be provided with pronouncing the colloquial phrases in the script and actors can still be hired on merit.
How can regular Singaporeans approach this argument?
Okay, prescription time.
How Singaporeans can approach this argument and topic of casual racism in this case is to apply the "zoom in" and "zoom out" method.
For people who are supportive of Shrey's post, they are zooming out, scanning the plain, and recognising Shrey's predicament and situating it in a wider context. This can also be referred to as the consciousness-raising argument.
This wider context is made of a latticework of interlocking pieces: For example, the history of local cinema, the current state of Singapore's race relations, the official state-endorsed take on race relations, the concept of privilege, the invisibility of minority races in mainstream works of fiction, class consciousness, the commodification of National Service, the Essentialising of the Other, and what have you from a sociology textbook.
And here is an identifiable barrier to zooming out: The need to understand most or all the interlocking parts when zooming out, effectively makes the argument inaccessible to a good majority of regular Singaporeans.
Which is why, Shrey can hardly make an outright claim of racism because it is not a slam dunk watertight case. This is not a case of HardwareZone racism, where forum users are prone to using the "ABNN" acronym as an invective.
On the other hand, people who are dismissive of Shrey's post, are zooming in: They are processing his claims at face value and offering concrete counters. They are trying to show that he is inconsistent.
For example, isn't Phua Chu Kang an even worse and more outlandish caricature mocking Chinese people? Lest we forget, Phua Chu Kang is portrayed by someone who is not even Chinese. Gurmit Singh happens to look Chinese, but he is a Singh.
Therefore, the best approach, if it is even viable, is to be able to zoom in and out. This ensures one does not only get absorbed in highfalutin ideas when one zooms out, or get sucked in zooming in trying to undermine another person who was just relating a personal experience that one felt had gone awfully wrong.
Last but not least, Singaporeans fighting passionately about something is a good thing.
Because people who fight about things show that they actually care. A country of people who even bother is better than a country of people who don't.
A little pugilism goes a long way.
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