Local actor, Shrey Bhargava who caused a resurgence of discussion on racial stereotyping in Singapore via his viral Facebook post on Saturday is contesting the statement issued to dispute his recollection of an audition for Ah Boys To Men 4 (ABTM4) and challenging for the audition tapes to be released so as to prove without a doubt in regards to what actually took place during the audition.
Speaking with The Online Citizen, Shrey claimed that the statement that was issued by producers of ABTM4, J Team and mm2 Entertainment, does not reflect the truth of what took place during the audition.
Common for auditions to test versatility of actors
In the statement issued by the three entities, Shrey attended the audition on 27 May for the role of an Indian soldier in the upcoming ABTM4 movie and was asked to try out different ways of presenting the role including that of someone who speaks with an Indian accent.
The statement notes that it is not uncommon during auditions that casting directors decide to test the versatility of actors by asking them to perform in a wide range of roles and characters, not necessarily always according to the script requirements.
It wrote, "This process sometimes unravels performances that inspire directors with new ideas to further enhance character developments in their movies. At other times, knowledge of the actors’ versatility helps the casting directors in the casting of future productions. Actors attending such auditions therefore may not be able to draw accurate conclusions with respect to the portrayals of the roles without the context and final decision on the roles concerned."
The statement further notes, "The scripts of ABTM4 are still being worked on by the creative team. With his vast experience in making movies that are enjoyed by many Singaporeans of all races, director Jack Neo is acutely aware of race sensitivity and will be sensitive and careful when dealing with such a matter. It is our aim to make ABTM4 as enjoyable and popular as the previous movies among Singaporeans."
"Be a more full-blown Indian man"
When Shrey first talked to TOC on the matter, he clarified his stance by stating, "Let me begin by expressing that I am averse to stirring more conflict, and simply wish for the truth to be put out there for the benefit of everyone and for the benefit of productive discussion."
He claims that the JTeam's statement on what happened at the auditions has misrepresented the truth entirely.
"They said that I was tested on my “versatility” and actor’s range by asking me to perform the scene in different ways, including once with the Indian accent. This is not true. I was asked to do the scene only twice. The first time I did without direction. The second time I did after being given the direction “be more indian” and to do it again as a “full-blown Indian man”."
For the sake of clarity, this is what happened word-for-word at the audition according to Shrey's recollection:
After Shrey walked into the audition room, he handed the casting team his resume and headshots, did an introduction and performed the scene once as how he had prepared it.
Subsequent to performing it, the following conversation happened:
Casting Director: "For the next take, can you be more Indian?”
Casting Director: "Be a more full-blown Indian man."
Shrey: (Confused that they define Indian in their own way) “You mean a thick Indian accent and like mannerisms... -”
Casting Director: "Yes."
Shrey: (Realising that they've equated being Indian to being a stereotype with exaggerated accents and mannerisms, and so wanting to call them out) "But that's not how all Indians speak."
Casting Director: "But that's what we want. And make it funny."
Shrey: (Being offended at this point, given they're defining what being more Indian means) "Okay." And so he did the scene once more with the scripted words couched in Singlish terms and nuances in an Indian accent. Two separate accents forced to be merged into one. This was both contextually jarring and unnatural to do.
After he said thanks, the audition ended with no further interactions.
"My main question which no one has addressed is this: What did they mean by "Be more Indian"?" said Shrey.
He added, "Do they have a premeditated idea of what it means? Being Indian encompasses our culture, heritage, language, history etc., and yet they seem to have their own definition? A definition that they believe will make the scene “funny”?"
Offence taken to be more Indian
"First, is it okay for them to decide on behalf of my race what being “More Indian” means? And why is being “More Indian” supposed to be “funny”?
This is the main crux of my stance, and this has been from the beginning. In spite of this, the majority of the people who have made negative comments have casually ignored that and focused on the fact that I found doing an accent offensive.
Because of this, it was easy to paint me as a hypocrite for having performed accents and yet holding the view that being asked to do the Indian accent was offensive. I never said, nor was it implied in my stance, that I took offense in being told to do the scene with an Indian accent. What I took offense with was being told to make the scene “more Indian”, and to somehow “make it funny”.
The accent is not the problem - it becomes a problem when the ONLY role for the minority in a film is a RACIAL caricature made to be amusing for the majority and the accent’s sole purpose is to feed that stereotype. That is when the use of the accent becomes harmful. Otherwise, they add authenticity to the role."
Audition script not compatible with accent
Referring to the script which he shared with TOC, Shrey notes that the accent was not meant to suit the character to begin with, saying "The language doesn't fit the accent you know?"
The lines which auditioning actors were to be said are:
- What is this, why do we need so many things for just one vehicle? Just need SAR21 to settle it all, we so suay can! Pui!
- But infantry come back clean arm send arm then can sleep already...
- Izzit? Tell us leh, than at least we can be happy a bit. haha....
True enough, it would be agreeable to say that the language used for the script be better suited for someone using a Hokkien accent to make it sound authentic and funny.
He commented that if one consider the lines and the inappropriateness of the use of Indian accent for the audition, the smear campaign headed by Xiaxue has completely missed the point, and completely missed its mark.
Local blogger Xiaxue had earlier posted on her Facebook, screenshots and a video compiling Shrey's casting shoots and wrote comments that revolved around Shrey being a hypocrite for mimicking many different accents as part of his promotion marketing on numerous occasions.
"Oh, the drama and hypocrisy! Even if there is an issue with races reduced to caricatures with accents, Shrey is the last person with any rights to lecture people on it because he is a repeated offender himself. He does comical accents all the time to elicit laughter. He even calls it his "special talent". But when asked to perform his "talent", it suddenly is racism. Ok, whatever you say boss." wrote Xiaxue.
Shrey notes that what Xiaxue's post has done in all is to simply attacking and inciting hate towards him personally in her followers.
"Now, I wish to ask: how was JTeam testing my versatility with that audition? Was it to test how versatile I am to play their idea and definition of "Indian"? The script was in complete Singlish, as you can see, and most of the lines and phrases are awkward and contextually jarring when said with a "full-blown" (whatever that means) Indian Accent." said Shrey.
He added, "Phrases like "Pui!" Or "We so suay can!" are distinctly Singaporean and saying them with an exaggerated Indian accent is unnatural. Do give it a try. I found it hard to make any sense."
Challenges JTeam to release the audition tapes for the truth
Shrey states that JTeam's statement had misrepresented the facts, and because of this, it has painted him in a damaging and deceptive light"
"It seems as though I over-reacted, or worse, that I lied. Following this, people have continued to lambast me, saying I did not provide the whole picture or that I am lying, when in fact, the truth always remained and my stance never changed." said Shrey and challenges the JTeam to release the audition tapes in order to prove the truth.
"If they had indeed tested me on my versatility by asking me to do the scene in an array of different ways and only once with an Indian accent then they should have multiple tapes of me doing as such and one tape with me doing it in an Indian accent."
Shrey is confident that JTeam has only two tapes - One of him doing his own version of the act as what he had prepared and another of him performing after their direction "be more Indian".
I hope this clarifies what transpired at the audition and demonstrates that my identity and race was generalized through the direction "Be more Indian" and that my versatility was therefore not tested. Instead, they defined for me what being Indian ought to mean and that is the crux of the matter. They were oblivious to how this statement could be overly-generalizing and offensive, and this is the basis for my need to speak out for the purposes that have been expressed time and again. I hope this clears up any misunderstanding and I hope together we can all be more aware, and allow for a better dialogue as well as social and cultural change to create a better Singapore for all."
Regrets that original post had not been clearer
Shrey was earlier called to assist the police in investigations on Wednesday this week after police reports were made on him and his Facebook post. He also shared that hate messages, abusive comments and racist remarks that were sent to him as a result of his Facebook post.
Shrey notes that he had realised that his original post failed to express the matter clearly and said, "if there's one thing I regret it is that. I wish I had been clearer so people could see the true picture as it is and perhaps then all the misunderstandings would not have happened."
"I didnt expect the post to go viral. So I wish I had done that." said Shrey.