Kopi with Bertha: Iced mocha with Shrey Bhargava
by Bertha Henson and Sharanya Pillai
A WEEK after he returned home to Singapore for his university vacation, the sky fell on Shrey Bhargava. After what can be described as a “bad day at work’’ (my words), he took to Facebook to rant about his experience with an audition for a part in Ah Boys to Men 4, found support and sympathy among his friends – and decided to make his post public.
“I never thought it would go viral,’’ he said. But with the thousands of “likes’’ came the brickbats, smeared with heinous racist comments, which almost sent him into a depressive spiral. His girlfriend and family members took to banning him from looking at his Facebook account for a while, to shield him from the harsher barbs.
Then he got an invitation to lim kopi with the police. He and his family spent a couple of days worrying that he might have landed on the wrong side of the Sedition Act or other laws, for starting a conversation that was proving so divisive. It turned out all right. You can read it here.
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Sitting across me at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf outlet in Century Square on Friday (Jun 2) night, there was no sign that the incident was getting him down. In fact, he seemed energised. He was sparking a conversation that he said had to be held: the casual racism that minorities experience all their lives. Not that the majority Chinese were deliberately racist, he caveated quickly, they were just oblivious to the impact of their words and actions.
Mr Bhargava is 22 years old, a first-generation Singaporean whose parents hailed from north India. He is studying at the University of Southern California, and plans, he made it plain, to be an artiste who means to put up a “mirror to society’’.
Online, he is crossing swords with the likes of blogger Xiaxue, the crew associated with the Jack Neo film, and those who thought he was being overly sensitive about being asked to act “more Indian’’ and to put on a thicker Indian accent because this would raise more laughs.
He was derided as an appuneneh, told to “go back to India’’, quit acting and flip prata – and those were just the milder versions. He quipped that he would be a rich man if there was a dollar for every prata remark levelled at him.
We had a long tangle about his original post, trying to pin down the key reason for his angst. I suggested that people were attacking him on several fronts, on his past, authentic accents, the right of movie producers and so forth, because his post could be read in many different ways. He concedes that he should have been more temperate, instead of using words like “disgusted’’ in his post. But, hey, he never intended it to go viral!
But because of the reactions he had received, he had been trying to dissect his own feelings – why he felt what he felt. It came down to this: He was upset that a non-Indian casting director had assumed that she knew more about what makes an Indian “more Indian’’ and decided that it was a “thick Indian accent’’. He was told to project this image in a big budget movie, which wasn’t even in line with the thoroughly Singlish script he was asked to read. Worse, he was told to make it ‘’funny’’.
So, it would be okay if an Indian casting director suggested this? He initially said it would be a little more acceptable, before adding later that an Indian wouldn’t even have asked for such a portrayal, having been at the receiving end of casual racism himself. The casting director simply did not think twice that what she was telling an Indian could be derogatory.
The premise of the film also matters, he said: “NS is a very Singaporean topic. (For) a film that has that sort of responsibility to then use words or phrases like ‘be more Indian’ so casually in an audition is necessarily problematic.”
He thinks that the Chinese were upset by his post because they believed they were being called out as “racist’’ and hence, “bad’’ people. This was not the case, he said; they just didn’t know better. They would recognise the impact, however, if they had lived abroad and become members of a minority community. In other words, an “outsider’’. The majority everywhere have always enjoyed the privilege of being secure in their identity, he added.
So you are asking for everyone to be more politically correct, especially in the way the Chinese majority interact with the minorities? He prefers to describe it as a heightened awareness of their words and actions.
The responses to his post were proof enough of their ignorance. They just couldn’t understand why he was upset because they never had to experience life as a minority member.
“I’ve got a ton of really nasty remarks that have served to prove my point that this is a problem,” he said.
“Personally, that demoralised me a lot. But for each message I got like that, I got 10 messages from Chinese and non-Chinese friends, teachers and mentors who have poured their support for me.”
He thought people who said he should “just act’’ know nothing about the meaning of being an artiste. While movie-makers have the right to cast roles whichever way they please, actors themselves could start trying to influence the portrayals of ethnic groups.
The Mind Your Language days were so 70s, he said. People have moved on and expect to see more diverse experiences.
His is the confidence and idealism of youth, who hope for a race-blind society and a media environment which stops caricaturing races and therefore, embedding these stereotypes even further. He thinks this will be achieved with a more vocal and more informed younger generation. This, notwithstanding “institutionalised’’ or structural racism like the CMIO categories and the reserved elected presidency.
“Since young, it’s somehow embedded in you that you are defined by your race. This is a structural problem that is ingrained and takes years to change,” he said, and wondered aloud if we could imagine a Singapore without the CMIO racial categories.
We decided not to go there because, among other things, we’d be stuck overnight at the café.
What about the standup comedy routine in which he caricatured Indians, which Xiaxue said showed him to be a hypocrite? He held forth on how most comedians make fun of themselves. In any case, it was his first comedy routine done while he was in junior college. He was young and regretted the act as soon as he performed it.
What about his Arab journalist character in one episode of The Noose? He said he was trying to “satirise a stereotype’’– that Arabs cannot run away from the perception that they are terrorists, despite earnest attempts to do good. “Cheem,’’ I said.
What does this episode do for his acting future?
He acknowledged that his bridges had been burnt with the companies associated with ABTM4, such as J Team Productions. But the reach of his post has made him known to a wider network. He had been getting messages of support, including from a filmmaker based in the United States.
I wondered about how different this young man was compared to many others his age I’ve had contact with in university. Mr Bhargava was never at a loss for words. His responses came quick. He could see that the issue was a big one but never shied away from saying his piece with aplomb.
Perhaps, it was because unlike most other young Singaporeans, he’s a first-generation Singaporean, unfettered by the experience of past generations who grew up in a minority setting.
His parents, he said, were amazed at the racist comments directed at him. They themselves were never subjected to such barbs, given that they belonged to the majority community in India.
He said that as a first-generation Singaporean, it may take a “smaller threshold” for him to speak out against casual racism than a Singaporean Indian “who’s had generations ahead of him”.
“Maybe as they are growing up, the grandparents might be like, this happens, just learn to deal with it,” he said.
Years of co-mingling with other races might have led to the minorities resigning themselves to the slights and comments directed at them. But – why should they?
I suggested tentatively the idea that talking about race could pose law and order problems. He caught on immediately and said fears of racial riots such as what happened in the 1960s were part of Singapore’s “post-traumatic stress syndrome’’. He wouldn’t be drawn into saying whether tempers would result in violence, but asked if the alternative of staying mum was any better.
He added: “Just because [racism] has existed for a long time, or generations of Singaporean Malays and Indians have internalised this as something that will exist or have a defeatist attitude to just deal with it – does that make it okay for it to exist?”
Two hours later, and Mr Shrey Bhargava looks like he could go on forever. What was a personal post about a bad day at work had led him to explore the multi-faceted aspects of racism. He was eager to continue the conversation and I had to keep saying that I was more than twice his age and needed sleep.
Yes, we could talk about race forever. It’s a never-ending story for Singapore.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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