'Ah Boys to Men 4' producers speak out over alleged race issue during audition

Ah Boys to Men. (Photo via The Hive Asia)
Ah Boys to Men. (Photo via The Hive Asia)

Ah Boys to Men 4 (ABTM4) producers have spoken out after an audition involving local actor Shrey Bhargava, 22, sparked racial controversy.

In a statement to the media on Monday (29 May), a spokesperson clarified that Bhargava was asked to “try out different ways of presenting the role”, which included presenting as someone who speaks with an Indian accent.

They continued, “It is not uncommon during auditions that casting directors decide to test the versatility of actors by asking them to perform in a wide range of roles and characters, not necessarily always according to the script requirements.

“This process sometimes unravels performances that inspire directors with new ideas to further enhance character developments in their movies. At other times, knowledge of the actors’ versatility helps the casting directors in the casting of future productions. Actors attending such auditions therefore may not be able to draw accurate conclusions with respect to the portrayals of the roles without the context and final decision on the roles concerned.”

The statement also said that director Jack Neo was aware of the sensitivities regarding race.

“With his vast experience in making movies that are enjoyed by many Singaporeans of all races, director Jack Neo is acutely aware of race sensitivity and will be sensitive and care full-time when dealing with such a matter,” it said.

Auditions for the movie took place on 27 and 28 May at the 2MM Talent Hub on Zubir Said Drive. Some of the roles called for “a handsome Chinese male between 18 and 25 years old, a Chinese male or female from 25 to 35 years old, or a Malay or Indian male from 25 to 35 years old”.

Local actor accused casting director of racial stereotyping, insensitivity

The statement by ABTM4 producers, J Team and mm2 Entertainment was jointly released two days after a Shrey Bhargava shared his audition experience on Facebook on Saturday (27 May), in which he said that he was asked to perform as a “full blown Indian man”, which involved him having to speak with a stronger Indian accent.

In his post, Shrey had even expressed “disgust” for being asked to “portray a caricature” of his own race. Shrey posted another response in a second public Facebook post on Monday (29 May), explaining that the issue of reducing a minority to a caricature was not exclusive to the movie and that he was asking for it to be recognised as such.

While he believed that the team behind the movie had “no intention of malice”, he felt that they had acted due to “habits that they may be oblivious to”.

“It’s not their fault. And it is not exclusive to ABTM. It’s a larger issue. I’m asking for the issue to be recognised and steps be taken for us to from now on be a more conscious society,” Shrey said in his post. He also said that his issue was not with using accents, but the context.

“Focusing on the use of accents and whether that is right or not, and whether I think that’s right or not is detracting from the real conversation about racial stereotyping of minorities in film,” he said in his post.

The post that was published on Saturday had garnered over 1,300 shares by Sunday evening, sparking reactions from other social media personalities and brands such as Xia Xue, Ministry of Funny, and MunahHirzi. Some of the reactions had criticised Shrey for his post on the audition.

Internet divided over Shrey Bhargava’s Facebook post

Blogger Xiaxue took aim at Shrey’s original post over the weekend, calling him “Hypocrite of the Year” for his previous stand-up performances and skits involving accents, including an Indian one, which she had compiled into a video.

“I have no issue with accents, or performing accents,” Shrey said in a response on the post. “However, everything else you are saying here (on the post) is doing nothing else but to paint me in an untrue and horrible light.”

Maxi Lim, an actor in the “Ah Boys To Men” franchise, also commented on the incident after having shared one of Xiaxue’s posts.

“You mentioned you put on a fake Indian accent, performed, felt horrible and left disgusted. There were times I knew I messed up an audition or perhaps felt unfair about certain requirements and left feeling not good. But did I take it all up online? This simply reflects your lack of professionalism and putting the race card into the picture is so wrong,” Lim said in his post on Sunday.

Shrey responded to Lim’s post, saying, “The issue here is that this form of ‘racism’ is implicit, internalised, institutionalised and ingrained. And this is the entire point. It is not consciously malicious. It is a phenomenon people are oblivious too.

On the flip side, Shrey had also earned support from some others on the Internet. Singer-songwriter Sezairi Sezali tweeted on Sunday that “racism has layers and levels”.

“Don’t be defensive when someone calls you racist, listen to what they have to say. Help,” he said.

The Ministry of Funny, in a Facebook post on Sunday, commented on what they called “casual racism” by pointing out how one of their videos mimicked Shrey’s depiction of events at the audition. Others, such as Munah & Hirzi, responded to the saga with humour.

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