Years ago, Avenue Q was strutting across the stage singing “Everyone’s a little bit racist, Today!”
So can we all just admit it?
We’re all constantly tiptoeing to be politically correct and at the same time writing half-arsed grammatically incorrect comments on social media.
Shrey Bhargava, a Singaporean actor, wrote of his experience auditioning for Ah Boys To Men 4 on his Facebook page. The post has sparked much debate, with some supporting him and others writing angry responses.
All these personal attacks highlight the fact that many people have missed the point of the whole Shrey-ABTM4 issue. People don’t have to agree. But many people seem to have missed the point.
The Ah Boys To Men series belong in the realm of comedy. That we can agree on. And it was likely not the best platform to find a completely fleshed out character with few stereotypes.
But by voicing out his opinions, Shrey has opened the doorway for us to understand the situation he experienced from his point of view.
Here’s what we seem to miss:
It’s a comedy! It shouldn’t be taken too seriously!
That’s true, but films and TV shows are a reflection of society. Comedy is supposed to be funny to us. But if something is funny but also hurtful, then underneath that hurt is a problem that needs to be discussed, instead of defensive justifications.
This is not a real problem and Shrey is just blowing it out of proportion.
Just because it hasn’t happened to everyone, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Maybe you haven’t experienced racism. Maybe you have. Maybe you have but not in the same way that Shrey felt. And if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean that you can pretend he didn’t feel what he felt and tell him what he feels. Everyone is entitled to their own feelings and opinions.
Well then it’s his problem and it shouldn’t be made into such a major issue.
This is a societal issue and we need to have the empathy and compassion to realize what some others are going through. We need to acknowledge that this is something that genuinely frustrates and hurts other people, and realize that race is a sensitive issue.
If Shrey doesn’t like the role, he should just not take it!
The problem doesn’t lie in whether he likes it, or even whether the role exists – many roles exist where a character is vile/bad/contentious to the point that we wonder how can such a character exist – but Shrey’s realization that this is a common problem he has witnessed since he started acting (which was 5 years old).
(There are many roles where we can’t even believe that such a character exists – Cersei is one of them.)
As an actor (any actor, regardless of skin colour, gender and ethnicity), it is hard to find roles that are well-developed, well fleshed out, and don’t adhere to a particular stereotype.
Perhaps Shrey’s previous body of work isn’t doing him any favours right now, but to continually criticize his opinions and his previous work is basically refusing to see the forest for the trees.
The point is:
How many times have you seen a Singaporean Indian protagonist?
How many Indians do you see depicted as ‘heroes’ or ‘heroines’ on our local screens?
The problem here is the poor representation of Indians (and other minorities, but that’s a separate post) in Singapore media.
When have you seen Indians headlining a local show?
Singaporean Indians appear as token characters, or jump in for a couple of scenes to say something funny, like mispronounce a word, just for a cheap laugh. They’re not actual characters that help advance the plot, or play the hero or show off some impressive fighting onscreen.
They’re constantly credited as Friend #4. Or Pedestrian #2. Or Classmate sitting in the back row.
Even in Hollywood, Indian actors are struggling for better representation. It has improved dramatically since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, with main leads Freido Pinto and Dev Patel.
This is combined with other up and coming actors scoring roles in Hollywood movies like Priyanka Chopra as the protagonist in Quantico and a villian in the Baywatch movie, Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling in their self-written TV shows Masters of None and The Mindy Project respectively.
We are slowly seeing a balance of Indian representation on Western shows – but why do they have to succeed in Bollywood or write their own shows before Hollywood acknowledges them and affords them a certain amount of representation?
But the media doesn’t owe you anything.
Yes. That’s totally correct.
The media is, first and foremost, a business. A film director wants to make money. A production company wants to make money. A TV station wants to make money. Everyone wants to make money!
But the media also has a part to play in society, in shaping societal views. That’s why we hanker down on our media (especially news media) because they have a huge part to play in reflecting our perspectives of the world.
Now here’s the kicker:
Why are you making such a big fuss?
Because what we see in the media shapes who we become as a society.
The representation of various different people allows for better understanding of society. Otherwise, the privileged will remain privileged…. because they don’t know any better.
We watch movies to be transported into another world, but we also watch movies to make sense of our relationship to the world we live in.
Seeing a range of Singaporean Indian characters onscreen shows us the stories not just of our personal lives, but the stories that are understood by the Singaporean public of who they are and what they can do and achieve.
The next generation will be looking at the actors on their TV screen (or iPad or whatever) and going “He has the same skin colour as me and he’s a hero. I can do it too!”
We need to have conversations about how people (not just Indians but all parts of our society) are represented on our screens.
Even if we have to admit that we are all a little bit racist inside.
Want to contribute to the conversation? Comment down below.