TL;DR – Singaporean Indians are different from India Indians, just like Singaporean Chinese are different from China Chinese.
Local actor and host Shrey Bhargava responded to a casting call. It was for the next instalment of Ah Boys to Men. He was told that he was not Indian enough. The casting director asked him to “make it ‘a full blown Indian man'”. What does that even mean? Thick Indian accent? But which part of India? North? South? And the Indian head bobble too?
You can read this full Facebook post here.
But why would the casting director want Shreya to do it?
It would be understandable if the role is a new citizen from India who has chosen to call Singapore home, and do NS. But apparently, that’s not the role Shreya auditioned for. He auditioned for a role of a Singaporean Indian. Not a new citizen from India. And that’s why there is such a big problem with asking Shreya to go “full blown Indian”.
Not many Singaporean Indians speak with a thick Indian accent
Because most, if not all, Singaporean Indians don’t speak like that. Do you hear DPM Tharman speak like that? Do you hear Minister Shanmugam speak like that? Do you hear Minister Vivian Balakrishnan speak like that? Did former President SR Nathan speak like that? No. Not at all.
Then why did the casting director of insist that an Singaporean Indian needs to speak with a thick Indian accent? Just because it’s funnier? That’s probably what Sharon Au thought when she put on a strong Indian accent in an audience interaction segment before the SEA Games opening ceremony in 2015.
Not many people found it funny. Instead, many felt offended.
Sharon Au herself acknowledged that she was wrong. In a Facebook post, she said:
“Some of you may have watched the pre-show and heard my attempt at mimicking an Indian accent. It was intended to be comic but in hindsight I realise how insensitive it was. I sincerely apologise to those whom I’ve inadvertently offended.”
If it was wrong then, why wouldn’t it be now?
Singaporean Indians are different from India Indians
Indeed, if anything, it would be even more wrong today. It’s saying that Singaporean Indians are more like India Indians than they are Singaporeans. Does that mean that we think Singaporean Chinese are more like China Chinese than they are Singaporeans?
Yes, just like how Singaporean Chinese are different from China Chinese
Do we then expect Singaporean Chinese roles in Singaporean shows to start speaking with a thick China Chinese accent? If that’s the case, then why did so many people criticise Joanne Peh for her Chinese-accented Mandarin in Mediacorp drama “Dream Coder”?
Surely we must realise that a Singaporean Indian is different from an India Indian, just as a Singaporean Malay is different from a Malaysian Malay, just as a Singaporean Chinese is different from a China Chinese. Why? Because while each race has retained and evolved its own culture and heritage, it has also allowed itself to be influenced by the customs and traditions of other races.
That is a crucial point that PM Lee made at the opening of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC):
“The result has been distinctive Singaporean variants of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian cultures, and a growing Singaporean identity that we all share, suffusing and linking up our distinct individual identities and ethnic cultures. We are confident of our own Singaporean cultures and identities, even as we are conscious that we are ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians or Eurasians.
Thus the Chinese Singaporean is proud of his Chinese culture – but also increasingly conscious that his ‘Chineseness’ is different from the Chineseness of the Malaysian and Indonesian Chinese, or the Chineseness of the people in China or Hong Kong or Taiwan.”
That’s why this is so wrong
If Shreya was auditioning for the role of new citizen from India and asked to speak with a “full blown Indian” accent, then fine. He signed up for that. He should have no problems doing it. If he did, he’s a terrible actor.
But that’s not what he signed up for. He signed up for an audition for the role of a Singaporean Indian.
And that’s why the audition is wrong. Not because it’s wrong to have stereotypes in movies. What’s wrong is that this audition is casting for the wrong stereotype. Just as the stereotypical Singaporean Chinese doesn’t speak with a thick China accent, the stereotypical Singaporean Indian doesn’t speak with a thick Indian accent.
That’s why to have a Singaporean movie portray a Singaporean Indian to be a stereotypical India Indian undermines our nation building process. And that is the biggest problem with this whole incident.
Shrey’s Facebook post has spread far and wide with over 4,000 shares, over 6,000 likes and over 1,000 comments. Many of those comments are very interesting too. And the man of the moment himself has also posted a second post to share his response after reading the comments to his first post.
Read ’em all and you can make up your own mind about whether the casting director went too far. But the most important thing here is to always remember that Singapore is a multi-racial society and we should be more sensitive and understanding towards people of a different race and culture from us.