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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Shrey Bhargava's Storm in a Teacup

So regarding this week's furore about Ah Boys To Men, I was asked just what I objected to in Shrey Bhargava's essay denouncing the audition where he was asked to speak like "a full blown Indian man":

1) He objected to speaking with a strong Indian accent.

Here we have a conflation between 2 concepts of "Indian": Indian Indians and Singaporean Indians.

Assuming the former: we don't have any indication that the casting director was asking him to portray a Singaporean Indian, The role might have been for an Indian Indian in NS (given Singapore's growing cosmopolitanism, the traditional CMIO model is increasingly invalid). Some fodder for this is that Maxi Lim, who starred in the 3 previous ABTM movies, pointed out that in none of them did the Indian actors speak with such accents.

Assuming the latter: as per Maxi Lim's post, assuming this character would have appeared in the final movie, it would've been the only movie of the 4 (to that point) in the series to have a Singaporean Indian speaking in such an accent. That's not much of a stereotype, is it?

Not to mention that Singaporean Indians do indeed have a specific way of speaking (Age as a factor in ethnic accent identification in Singapore, Imperfectives in Singapore's Indian community) so it's not like there is no basis for asking him to perform an "Indian" accent.

Plus, my friend was a Hokkien peng and said all his Indian enciks (army superiors, broadly speaking) spoke with such accents. From my experience in the army I can confirm that the Indian enciks do indeed have a certain way of speaking.

If in the quest for social engineering, we are so afraid of "stereotypes" that we refuse to allow them any representation at all, we create a surreal media landscape that bears little resemblance to reality and alienates consumers.

Another point of consideration is that he was just asked to do an accent. For all we know there wasn't supposed to be any such character at all and this was just to see what he was capable of (indeed that's what mm2 claims). You know, what auditions are for.

Also, the suggestion here is that it would've been less "offensive" if Shrey had been asked to imitate another accent in an exaggerated way.

Yet, if we say that it's okay to exaggerate "other people's" accents, that would be even more problematic. For example if he'd been asked to imitate an Arab accent (as he'd done in his own material before). Because then he could be seen as making fun of that other group.

2) Comedy is about exaggeration to get laughs. Jack Neo comedy is about crude exaggeration to get laughs.

Comedians regularly put on accents to get laughs and people are overwhelmingly okay with it; indeed a classic comedy principle is (or at least used to be) that you should be able to make fun of everything. So why can't accents feature in Jack Neo comedy?

Furthermore, Jack Neo movies in general aren't sophisticated and it has been noted that his "characters are usually 'Ah Bengs'... who live in the heartlands and are utterly obsessed with money, or with not having enough of it" (The Cultural Materialism of Singapore in Jack Neo's Cinema / Stephen Teo in World Film Locations: Singapore). Why then should we expect his Indian characters to be sophisticated?

So you can mock Jack Neo for being a talentless hack. But you can't mock him for being a racist talentless hack.

3) His sheer hypocrisy in doing accents himself

As clearly pointed out by Xiaxue, Shrey himself markets himself on his ability to do accents, and has done in the past the very accent he slammed the ABTM casting director for requesting. Indeed, he has done accents of many other groups in the past.

So if he marketed himself on the basis of being able to do accents, why slam the casting director for asking him to demonstrate his prowess? This is like a Chinese from China listing ping pong as one of his hobbies and then getting upset when asked how often he plays it (because "stereotypes").

This is the same reason we mock Republican politicians who condemn homosexuality but are found in public bathrooms doing funny things with other men.

Is it alright for a Singaporean Indian to imitate cliched Singaporean Indian accents?
Is it alright for a Singaporean Indian to imitate cliched Indian Indian accents?
Is it alright for a Singaporean Indian to imitate cliched Arab accents?

Asking these questions helps us move beyond the simplistic rhetoric of Chinese privilege/racism and minority victimisation in Singapore.

Someone: Found a way to stump local SJWs over castinggate- say this drama will make local Indians less castable in the future- Production houses will just look for less butthurt Malaysian Indians

Cheaper, work harder, less drama

Anyway after this drama all the minority actors with sjw leanings will probably get shadowbanned of casting producers do background checks

nowadays before I work with somebody on a project I Fb stalk them to get intel on their ideological leanings- superSJW with history of drama gets immediate axe

Addendum: This might be the best response:

Tushar Ismail - This post is in response to queries by Drayton and...

"One important thing to remember is that just because we don't find something funny it does not give us the right or authority to dictate to other people what they should find humorous...

Shrey and I are not your average Indians, or even average Singaporeans for that matter. We're both from schools with particularly recognisable cultures, that are not the norm for the average Singaporean from a public school. Shrey hails from a certain school regarded for it's academic excellence, and I from SJI. We both went on to JCs after, him a JC affiliated to his secondary school and I, ACJC. This already puts us in a cultural minority (around 20%) as compared to others. What this also means is that our exposure to the average Singaporean is spectacularly limited. There are whole sociocultural strata of Singaporeans that we, during our formative years, would never have been exposed to. I feel it's important for us to recognise that we, and others like us, come from very insulated parts of Singaporean society. We would have come into contact with people who hail from those strata during our time in NS - I served as a firefighter in the SCDF, and I assume Shrey served in the army. I have also been more exposed to the multitudes of those Singaporeans in my time as a drama coach for various schools. Now, different strata doesn't imply in any way that either is better or worse than another - simply that we exist and experience Singapore very differently. Or as the regressive left likes to say, "We need to check our privilege".

So, while Shrey and I are from a 20% of society, Neo's films are targeted at another percentage of that society. A percentage with which we don't often interact with. A percentage to whom a heavily-accented Indian with all the stereotypical attributes Shrey decries as caricatures are a reality. Yes, not all Indians in Singapore speak with an accent, but many do, in fact, a lot do. So when he calls them caricatures, and I know he doesn't mean any harm, but intent is immaterial, he is calling my students, my neighbours, and a fair few of the fine men I met during my NS as caricatures.

Jack Neo's reality and world-view are different from ours. He makes films from his perspective and for the majority of Singaporeans who share his perspective. As far as authenticity is concerned, Neo is being as authentic as he can be, to himself and to his audience. I don't think that Neo is a racist, nor do I think that his writing is racist - because a racial stereotype, while lazy, is not inherently racist. As a film-maker what he puts onscreen is a valid and legitimate point of view. It may not be my point of view, and it isn't, but we can't accuse him of being dishonest.

Taking offense because they laugh at a stereotypical Indian is cherry-picking. They also laugh at the various other stereotypes present - the beng, the siao-on sergeant etc. etc.

(Shrey's argument that these other characters also have a depth to them is flawed. Worrying because one hopes that as an actor he should be able to discern character development from plot. Neo's main characters are also stereotypes and have no depth whatsoever- however as main characters they have more screen and have more things happen to them over the unfolding of the plot, but this doesn't translate to them having more depth.)

All this brings me to the interpretation of the direction, "be more Indian."...

In fact, let's face it, Shrey and I, in our most authentic selves aren't even Indian enough, apart from our brown skin, to be recognised as Indian by other Indians. I'm no stranger to accusations of being less Indian by my fellow Indians. I'm even, apparently, unrecognisable as a Singaporean by many locals due to my accent. I'm asked on an almost daily basis whether I am local, and why I don't sound local if I was. This is a reality that those of us who have more Western accents have to face.

If Shrey is thinking about authentic representation of minorities on screen, then his most authentic self will not cut it. He will have to do an accent, he will have to adopt some mannerisms to be recognisable to the people he wishes to represent on screen. And in doing so, some people will find it funny. Perhaps an unfortunae side-effect in our attempts at authenticity.

However, if Shrey wants to portray an Indian that's closer to the kind of Indian he is, he must abandon this narrative of nuanced representation of minorities entirely, since he is simply representing himself and those like us.

What he has to admit is that a heavily-accented Indian, is more authentically Indian, than his desire for a non-accented nuanced approach.

Furthermore, I know of Chinese actors who have also been asked to tone down their "Ang Mo" accents and, "be more Chinese" to appeal to the general public since, in spite of their race, their accent made them seem, "foreign".

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that, "be more " is an easily understandable direction that can be interpreted without prejudice or outrage. Something that seems unlikelier now as outrage rises in value as a currency.

I empathise with Shrey's frustration. As a minority actor quality roles are few and far between. Actually, even as a consumer, quality entertainment is few and far between. But I have never thought that the media owe me representation. They don't. It's a business. They do what they have to to make money.

Will nuanced characters and stories make for better quality entertainment? Absolutely! But our media doesn't owe that to anyone of any race for any reason.

Individual film-makers like Neo, or Khoo, or Junfeng, or anyone else, don't owe it to anyone to be progressive or create art that furthers our cause. If it's our calling, then fine, we go out there and make art that reflects our perspectives and desires."
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