A social media storm has erupted after an Indian actor, Shrey Bhargava, went to an audition for a Jack Neo movie. The movie was identified as an upcoming continuation of Jack Neo’s army series, Ah Boys to Men.

The actor, Shrey, wrote about his feeling of being made to put on the India accent by the show’s producers, who did not seem to feel that there was anything wrong with the India accent stereotype. He refused initially, but relented eventually and said that performing the accent made him feel disgusted and ostracized.

He wrote: “So, I just finished my audition for Ah Boys to Men 4, and this is what happened inside the casting room: After completing one full take of the audition script, playing a soldier with a Singaporean accent who spoke in colloquial Singlish, I was asked by the casting director to make it ‘a full blown Indian man’.

Now, I get it, casting directors give directions to see if actors can follow them, but really, asking me to be more Indian even after I performed the scene in a completely Singaporean way and talked as most Singaporeans would (even Indian Singaporeans)?

I said “but not all Indians in Singapore speak with a thick Indian accent” And she just responded with “but that’s what we want. And make it funny”.”

He said the purpose of his sharing his experience was to change the way Singaporean film was trying to portray its races.

“Films play a very important role in shaping our ideas, perceptions and feelings towards social issues, our country and each other. It’s 2017 and it’s time for us to change. We cannot keep perpetuating stereotypes. We must begin to recognize that Singapore is NOT a Chinese country. We are multiracial, and multilingual,” Shrey wrote.

“We must recognize that and make films that reflect our reality. Films that discourage stereotypes and reinforce our one Singaporean identity. If films are made that have Indian characters that speak with normal Singaporean accents, then people will not be given a chance to believe that all Singaporean Indians speak in a certain stereotypical way.

I do not deserve to feel like a foreigner in my own country.”

His rant has ignited a social media storm, with netizens weighing in on both sides of the racist-or-not argument.

One netizen, Paul Jerusalem wrote: “if i see one more chinese person / koolaid-drinking minority race person saying “this is a jack neo film what do you expect” or “bad actor” or “playing the race card again” or “there are ‘real indians’ who speak with a ‘real indian’ accent what” or “it’s 2017 and we’re still talking about race ah”…

– the Jack Neo ™ tag does not excuse the film franchise from critique

– if there’s such a thing as a ‘real’ Indian then are Singaporean Chinese people fake if they don’t speak with a stereotypical mainland Chinese accent?

– we cannot forget the amount of reach that the Ah Boys to Men series has. even if people do not take the series (or more broadly, Jack Neo films) seriously, it reproduces flat and tired representations of people who, as it is, do not get enough representation on mainstream media that departs from their usual role as comic relief (think Muthu, Letitia Bongnino, etc)

– also i’m pretty sure we can expect more of a film series that is funded by the Media Development Authority, and supported by MINDEF. what does it say if we are using government funding to entrench problematic representations of minority groups in Singapore — an Indian National Serviceman at that? Can minority race people in Singapore ever be free of constant reminders that they can never truly assimilate, even if they go through a state-mandated rite of passage that Every Singaporean Son ™ must go through?”

Another netizen apologized for “shallow comedy” that Singaporeans enjoy in Jack Neo films. He wrote: “To expect Singapore to be above shallow comedy is rather tough. Sometimes comedy is about just leaving your brains at the door – and that’s what people want, which is what directors will give. Sadly, that’s the case, but I think it’s a normal that is very much worth questioning.
Thinking out loud here, but how is having a thick Indian accent even a stereotypical Singaporean Indian?”

There were several netizens who disagreed with Shrey. They felt that Shrey had not understood the nature of Jack Neo’s comedy and wonder why Shrey and several other netizens were making an issue out of the casting call. This led several minority netizens, and even those from the majority race, to accuse these netizens of “Chinese privilege”.

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