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The Heart of The Thespian: AUGUSTMAN Speaks To Shrey Bhargava

When the Asian Academy Creative Awards rolls into town this week, many industry watchers will be hoping that this is the year Singaporean filmmakers and actors finally get recognised in our continent for their work. It’s worth noting that they’re up against nominees from more established markets in media and entertainment, such as Thailand, China, South Korea and India.

We are especially looking at the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category, as our very Shrey Bhargava is on the list of nominees this year for his stellar performance in Titoudao: Dawn of the New Stage.

It’s fully deserved. On top of his role in Titoudao, Shrey has consistently delivered outstanding performances, such as the sharp, shrewd lawyer George Singam in This Land Is Mine (2021) and the unstable tech genius and terrorist Rajeev Khanna in Third Rail (2022). As local actors go, he stands out for his talent and range. The most important thing to realise about Shrey is that he is an actor by craft. Singapore’s media and entertainment scene has for too long given more clout to personalities rather than actors – pretty faces with sizeable followings on social media who have not taken the time and effort to hone their acting skills.

Shrey Bhargava as 1940s lawyer George Singam in This Land Is Mine.
Shrey Bhargava as 1940s lawyer George Singam in This Land Is Mine.

Shrey has been taking steps to bridge both worlds, and with the support of local audiences and the local industry, he might just master both worlds.

Ahead of the Awards, AUGUSTMAN was privileged to sit down for a chat with Shrey, and we’ve uncovered what exactly makes this thespian tick.

AM: Did you always know you wanted to be an actor, or was there an AHA! moment when you realised this is the path ahead for you?

Acting was always my safe space where I could play freely, and using my imagination that way came very naturally to me from a young age. The ‘aha!’ moment came when I was 15 and I won my first ‘Best Actor’ award in school for a show and was told that the reason I won was that I was the only actor then that was not just acting on my lines, but was ‘reacting’ the rest of the time too. To me, it seemed blatantly obvious, and nothing special – I was living the part. But then I realized – oh what comes so naturally to me and is joyful for me, is a skill that is quite hard to develop. I knew it was a sign, and I was excited by the prospect of how much better I could be if I trained to actually become an Actor. That pursuit for self-betterment in craft never ends, and I love it!

“To me, it seemed blatantly obvious, and nothing special – I was living the part.” – Shrey Bhargava
“To me, it seemed blatantly obvious, and nothing special – I was living the part.” – Shrey Bhargava

Let’s talk about the first time you made waves here – when you auditioned for a role in ‘Ah Boys To Men 4’ six years ago and refused to do an exaggerated Indian accent. You were called out for your unprofessionalism back then by some in positions of economic and ethnic privilege. Six years and multiple racial equality movements such as BLM later, how do you feel about what you did?

Looking back, I think what I did to start the conversation around minority representation in media was important. And I do believe now we are seeing some lasting changes in how minority characters on screen are written, and how the casting process is growing to be more inclusive. Could I have been more tactful then in going about the conversation? 100% Yes – a Facebook post perhaps isn’t the most conducive way to have a fruitful discussion and/or a significant immediate impact. It is what it is though, and I’m grateful that in the end our industry has grown the way it has in all these years.

What you did took a lot of courage. I’m sure you know it might affect your professional career. What pushed you to speak out?

To be honest, I did not expect the post to go viral at that point. I was using Facebook the way many of us did in the early 2010s – my personal diary. Haha! I was processing my feelings immediately after that audition and so I wrote the post the way I did. At that time, what struck me the wrong way most was the direction to ‘be more Indian’. I couldn’t fathom for the life of me how that was an actionable note for an Actor. Still can’t. The post was my attempt then in breaking down how that note made me feel as an Actor of Indian ethnicity at the time.

“At that time, what struck me the wrong way most was the direction to ‘be more Indian’. I couldn’t fathom for the life of me how that was an actionable note for an Actor.” – Shrey Bhargava
“At that time, what struck me the wrong way most was the direction to ‘be more Indian’. I couldn’t fathom for the life of me how that was an actionable note for an Actor.” – Shrey Bhargava

Some of those who called you out back then were colleagues in the media and entertainment industry. What’s your relationship with these people now?

I can only speak for Maxi because he was the prominent one from the series who spoke up against me and was also my friend. It was difficult at that time, but since then we’ve chatted and made amends, and I’m glad we’re still friends today.

Now you have a regular hosting gig for Talking Point, which isn’t exactly acting. Do you enjoy it as much, being a host and documentarian?

Yes! Very much so. It is so fascinating to meet so many different folks from such varied backgrounds and to get to learn about their work! It is very welcome balance to playing different characters – I get to be myself and learn something new each time. It is so insightful and rewarding.

You’re also doing an exciting interactive theatre murder mystery in Mind Hunter. That’s acting as well, but in real time – without giving too much away, you’re interacting directly with the audience in this one. How has that experience been for you?

Yes! Crack the Case: Mindhunter is a new concept – imagine immersive theatre meets escape room. The audience has to work to solve a murder mystery by strategizing to catch live theatre scenes that happen simultaneously around them. It’s been fantastic. Every audience is different and they all ‘play’ the game differently so it is fun to do and see how everyone reacts and whether they are able to crack the case! I think gamifying the theatre going experience and bringing theatre from onstage to within the audience is also a great way to bring alot of traditionally non-theatre going audiences to the theatre, and that’s been a joy to witness too – that lightbulb moment where many new audience members discover a new love for the theatre experience!

I’m speaking to you just a couple of days ahead of this year’s Asian Academy Creative Awards, in which you’re our nominee for Best Supporting Actor, after you became the national winner for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Singapore) for “Titoudao: Dawn of the New Stage”. How are you feeling about it?

I am so excited, Suffian. It is my very first Awards show, and I can’t wait to soak it all in. I really do want to win it for Singapore and do Singapore proud. It has been a dream of mine to show the world that actors from Singapore have what it takes in them. I really hope I can do so on Thursday.

Did you know while filming Titoudao that it was going to lead to something as big as this?

Not at all! While filming the show, all I had on my mind was one – the blessing that I had such a fun role to play – and two – the work ahead of me to do the character justice.

“While filming the show, all I had on my mind was one – the blessing that I had such a fun role to play – and two – the work ahead of me to do the character justice.” – Shrey Bhargava
“While filming the show, all I had on my mind was one – the blessing that I had such a fun role to play – and two – the work ahead of me to do the character justice.” – Shrey Bhargava

What’s next for you? Any exciting projects coming up?

Yes! My latest mini-series, Come Closer has just been released on MeWatch. It is a murder mystery whodunnit set in 1980. I play Sgt Manoj, one of the police officers on the case, tasked with deciphering who is telling the truth. And it is quite the task. I had a blast working with Akanga Film Asia and K Rajagopal again. The show is filmed so beautifully, you really feel like you’re in the 80s in Singapore. And a dark, unsettling Singapore at that too.
I also recently performed in a Filipino-Singapore co-production. It is a movie that should come out in the new year! Can’t say anything more than that!