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It's time to start the discussion on racial stereotypes

Actor Shrey Bhargava said in public something that minority-race actors grumble about all the time among friends.

Judging from the reaction on his Facebook page, you would think he had stepped on a puppy, torn up the Singapore flag or sold national secrets to a foreign power.

But all he did was put up a post about his audition for the upcoming Ah Boys To Men 4 movie. The casting director asked him to do a caricature Indian, he did it and left feeling disgusted.

To use an army metaphor, he stuck his head out of the trench and drew fire. Lots and lots of it.

He has received some messages of support, but the majority of comments have been brutal.

The milder ones call him a crybaby. At the other end of the spectrum, a "truther" online campaign seeks to out him as a hypocrite, as a performer who has used a thick Indian accent for comedy - with the aim of destroying his career.

If he had left the production unnamed, his would be one more complaint in a sea of Facebook complaints. He would have gotten a few likes from friends and a few shares, and that would have been the end of it.

 

But what stood out about Bhargava's post was that he named the movie franchise. It is a mostly Mandarin one that is hugely popular with Mandarin speakers, directed and produced by Jack Neo, an iconic Chinese personality, and a franchise about a topic - national service - that holds a deep meaning for male Singaporeans.

To use another military metaphor, he stepped on a landmine.

Bhargava, a Singaporean who has served national service, was tried and sentenced online for the crime of smearing the sacred combination of Neo, national service and Chinese-language comedy.

He had, without meaning to, drawn lines in the sand - between English and Mandarin speakers, Chinese and minority races, and "snobs" who like highbrow comedy versus "slobs" who like Neo's brand of slapstick.

Many of the comments are of the "it's only a movie, suck it up, get over it; you are an actor, act like one; everyone has things about their job they don't like, stop whining" variety.

Which I do not understand. Movies are milestones in our lives; they express the things we cannot say. If movies were trivial, why bother retorting on Facebook?

Also buried in there is the assumption that there is no such thing as dignity and respect in the acting profession. Huh? Are actors lesser humans compared with bus captains or airport counter personnel?

For the moment, Bhargava seems to be okay. He has opened a Pandora's box, releasing thoughts and feelings suppressed in a multiracial society with a strong bias against rocking the boat, and he seems to want to keep the lid open by posting articles about racial stereotypes in movies and on television.

Good for him. Get the discussion going and it will be good for everyone - Indians, Chinese, Malays and, yes, snobs and slobs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2017, with the headline 'It's time to get the discussion on racial stereotypes going'. Print Edition | Subscribe