Shrey Bhargava made news this week when he put on Facebook a post about stereotyping Indians in Singapore in the great comedy Ah Boys to Men, which is embarking on its third sequel. Which reverberated around Singapore like one of the NDP fighter jets.
It enlightened us on many other stereotypes. For example, Received English is not funny. Indian accents are. Comedy is all about funny caricatures of characters. Actors are hired not as themselves, nor what their perception of the role should be like. Most Germans are not Nazis, but in many war movies about WWII, many of them are still tasked to play Nazis. The actors in Big Bang Theory are nerdy and Melissa McCarthy never objects to the roles she gets. That last one is definitely not true, because she often talks about how movies and television stereotype fat people and in fact has campaigned against fat-shaming and for breaking Hollywood stereotypes.
Singaporean provocateur Xiaxue slammed him for the post, writing “What did Chinese people do?! Because we find Indian accents funny we are now racist, even though so many of us wish for Tharman to be the next PM (myself included)?” This argument is what some people would call a ‘non sequitur’, also sometimes a fallacious argument. Just because one wishes for a current deputy prime minister to be the next prime minister doesn’t mean he or she is not a racist. It could mean the person recognises Mr Shanmugaratnam’s brilliance. Or a line of succession.
The Oxford dictionary defines that as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. That’s a strong phrase. Perhaps the right word in Shrey Bhargava’s experience would be ‘stereotype’, which it defines as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing” – in this case, the expectation of an accented speech. One of my favourite musicals has always been Avenue Q, for a simple song in its performance.
Accents are a way of intonation in a language usually specific to a country or region or social class. They are also the easiest way to establish affinity or distance. They have been used often in comedy to establish the cultural or lingual gulf between foreign and local. A particularly successful example of this is the classic English comedy Mind Your Language. A comedy that specifically set the premise for native accents as migrants coming into the country and wishing to integrate themselves by learning to speak the native language.
But before we laugh at lingual accents, consider in this case the numerous Indians who live in India and across the world. That’s just how they speak. It’s not because it’s funnier or more entertaining. Implying an actor ought to just do it for artistic licence to pervade a stereotype is well, sad and rude. But don’t take it from us, take it from our former cover star, Dev Patel.
No one likes to be stereotyped. Nor does any one want to be a representative of that stereotype. Like how Shrey doesn’t want to depict all Indians as having a strong Hindi accent, I’m sure lots of Singaporean girls also don’t want to be stereotyped as ‘sarong party girls’ just because they happen to date or marry a foreign guy. Or Singaporean men who don’t want to be cast as ‘siam tiu’ or ‘tiong tiu’ kings just because they date a Thai or Chinese girl. Or that women should only earn 78 cents to every dollar a man earns. Of course, in that case, Shrey shouldn’t have done the accent. I’m not sure why he did it. He has to live with that decision.
Aristotle, in his Poetics, pointed out that the purpose of comedy is to portray humans as social beings, to hold a mirror up to society to reflect “its ugliness” in the hope that, after we see it in comedy, we won’t repeat it again. It’s designed to be rehabilitative. Although, strangely enough, we don’t seem to learn from it as we keep demanding for racial and gender stereotypes.
Over the course of the few years that I’ve worked in writing, I’ve spoken to a few actors and directors on racial stereotypes in Hollywood. Our recent cover interview with Daniel Wu touches upon the same subject, and in our interviews with various Asian actors in Hollywood (including Jackie Chan, who told us that he did his stereotype roles for his movies in the US for the money). Even worse, he was more recently slammed for stereotyping Indians in his recent film Kung Fu Yoga. Stereotypes occur because people find it entertaining, that’s true, but what we think is entertaining also changes as our culture and society changes. Just like how it was common for parents to threaten to have the police arrest me if I misbehaved as a kid, no one does that anymore. What’s acceptable, and what’s acceptably funny, evolves. Perpetuating that idea doesn’t do anybody any good.
Here’s just a thought, Singaporean to Singaporeans. A long time ago, women weren’t allowed in the workforce, or be the leads in movies and television programmes, or encouraged to be funny. But times change. And these days they change very quickly. Maybe it’s time to have a comedy show with every actor speaking in Received English. I for one would find that entertaining in Ah Boys to Men 4.