Imagine yourself as a Singaporean actor in Hollywood. You’re auditioning for the role of “Chinese Kungfu Master”. After the first take, your ang-moh casting director asks you to do a “full-blown Chinese” and try to make it funny this time, alright?
Would you oblige him with some ching-chong Chinaman accent? What if he asks you to tape back your eyes for a more authentically “chinky” look?
Do you narrow your eyes and do it? Or go back to another six months of pizza commercial voiceovers?
This is basically the predicament that Shrey Bhargava had to face when he walked into the audition for Ah Boys to Men 4 and was asked to go “full-blown funny Indian” by the casting director. He acceded to the request, but felt disgusted with himself afterwards because the experience made him realize that ‘I was seen by my country as nothing more than the colour of my skin and the way I speak’.
Since then, the Internet has exploded, and Bhargava has reportedly been questioned by the police after reports were made against his person.
Public opinion is divided down the middle. On one camp are Shrey’s supporters, who see the incident as a case of negative racial stereotyping. On the other side, a brigade led by Xiaxue and Donovan Choy, who believe that such stereotyping is perfectly normal for a comedy movie and Shrey should just get over himself because he’s an actor.
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Both sides have valid points, but whatever reason once existed in their arguments have long since been drowned out by a tide of actual racism. If Shrey’s accusation was shaky to begin with, it no longer is. The cries of “Prata man”, “Ah pu nene”, “Go back to India” in the comments section have proven his point better than the original post ever could – Singapore does have a problem with racial stereotyping and casual racism.
Nevertheless, it is still worthwhile to revisit his original claim of racial stereotyping that sparked the whole thing – is it racist to ask an Indian to “be more Indian. And make it funny”?
I personally think that it is. Accent-gate is not an incident worthy of triggering the Sedition Act, but I have no doubt that it is racially insensitive. If Shrey’s exact version of the events can be believed, his race is being reduced to a funny caricature. It’s not funny because he’s an Indian man serving in an all-Chinese platoon or because he is culturally misunderstood by his commanders of different ethnicities. It’s funny because he’s Indian. Full stop. The reality of his race alone is grounds for hilarity and that’s a big problem.
Hold on, I hear you scream. Chinese actors play stereotypes too and comedy is full of inappropriate caricatures! Why does Shrey have to be so butthurt? My answer is this: Not every stereotype is created equal and some are nastier than others.
To understand this, let’s visit the USA, where it is a common stereotype that black people are (a) very good at basketball and (b) commit crimes. Neither of the stereotypes apply for the vast majority for black Americans, but while the former is a harmless observation, plenty of innocent people have been shot thanks to the latter archetype.
The same goes for Jack Neo’s “chao Ah Beng*” stereotype versus whatever Shrey was asked to portray. Firstly, the chao Ah Beng already has a more nuanced character than “funny Indian” because being Chinese is not the only basis for his character. Secondly, Jack Neo’s portrayal of Chinese has never hurt the majority race’s chances for anything. Those “Indian stereotypes”, on the other hand, bleed imperceptibly into a system of discrimination where Singaporean Indians are seen as “foreign” and “different” in their own country.
If you doubt that such a system exists, just look at the lamentable record of our local media outlets when it comes to portraying or talking about race. Over the past year or so, TheSmartLocal, Night Owl Cinematics, Mediacorp and many others have come under fire for their insulting portrayals of minority races.
Ultimately, what I find most interesting about the entire debacle is not Shrey’s concerns about typecasting – a perennial problem for Indian actors and actresses – but the massive Internet backlash against his relatively mild suggestion that we stop stereotyping.
Why are people so butthurt by his Facebook post? Why is there so much anger and hate when someone of a minority race points out a flaw in the way things are done?
I don’t think that Singaporeans are so naive as to believe that our society is perfect. Shrey has come under scrutiny and criticism not because he has made a genuinely terrible argument, but because he challenged the status quo by questioning a time-honoured Singaporean tradition – the caricaturing of Indian mannerisms. In doing so, he has implicated about half of the country for their “racist humour”.
Shrey is under attack because he has dared to come out and challenge the majority on a privilege that they’ve always enjoyed – playing around with racial stereotypes and then demanding that the stereotyped parties don’t feel offended because it is just “comedy”. By taking offence, he has stepped on their fringe benefit of being the majority race and taken a stand against something that everyone, regardless of race, has been happy to sweep under the carpet until now.
It probably hasn’t helped that he has chosen to stand his ground despite the trolling and attacks against his character.
Judging by his viral post and the many minority-race artists who have come out to share similar stories about racial insensitivity, it’s clear that Shrey is not the only one who feels this way. He has merely addressed the elephant in the room and given voice to a widespread, angry sentiment.
So, is it time we take a good look at our media’s portrayal of race instead of excusing it for such grounds as comedy? Or should we continue to insist that the people who are offended should stop being so easily offended?
The ball, ladies and gentlemen, is in your court.
*chao Ah Beng refers to a crude, unschooled Chinese hooligan. Tattoos are optional, excessive swearing usually part of the package.