On Race and Stereotypes in Casting

In recent days, a firestorm of controversy has erupted over racial stereotyping in local films. But, as Alfian Sa’at points out, that’s hardly an isolated problem – minority-race actors in Singapore have long suffered from a lack of representation in the arts. – By Alfian Sa’at

In April last year, W!LD RICE conducted a roundtable on Cultural Diversity in Theatre. The purpose was to gather accounts by various theatre practioners regarding the issue of diversity and representation in the arts.

Fast forward about a year later, and a controversy has erupted over an audition for Jack Neo’s upcoming film, Ah Boys To Men 4. To summarise the events, a young Indian actor went for the audition and read his lines. He was then asked by the casting director if he could do the scene again as a ‘full-blown Indian man’. Posting on Facebook afterwards, the actor described how he had to do a thick Indian accent as it was considered ‘more funny’. He also stated his discomfort at having to do an exaggerated accent and expressed his wish that there would be less stereotypical roles for minority actors in the future. [See Shrey Bhargava’s original post here.]

Reactions to the incident have been polarised. Many have insisted that, as an actor, his task was to just follow instructions. According to some of these commentators, the actor should have done his research first before turning up for the auditions. Neo’s films are known for their lowbrow humour. Also, if he had felt uncomfortable during the audition, he should have just objected on the spot and should not have gone on social media to air his grievances.

But should lowbrow humour be confused with comedy that is done in poor taste? And what is wrong with highlighting certain practices in the industry that are less than ideal? Many of the actor’s critics claim that he is over-reacting.

However, what they are missing is a context: firstly, that minority-race actors in Singapore do not have many roles written for them. Secondly, that some of these roles lack complexity and are stock stereotypes. And thirdly, that racial clowning is often expected of them, where a racial accent or appearance is supposed to elicit laughs.

To provide a clearer picture of some of the struggles that minority-race actors have to face, here are some of the responses that emerged at last year’s Roundtable:

M: Lately, I’ve been looking at casting calls because I am a fresh graduate looking for a job. And I would see Police Officer: Chinese. Investigating Officer: Chinese. Villain: Malay. Robber: Indian. I was like, ‘Oh man, come on. I want to contribute to the industry, but most of the roles are not for my race. Often, the ones that pop out are “security guard, male, 40 to 50 years old”.’

S: Usually, what frustrates me the most when they have casting calls is that the only thing that they ever want is Chinese or Pan-Asian. My first thought when I saw it about five years ago was: ‘What on earth is a Pan-Asian?’ So a couple of my friends – we were teenagers – we took photos of ourselves with frying pans and put it on their Facebook page.

M: Yes, they will specify Pan-Asian, good-looking, white, fair. I am also fair in my own way. I think I am just not your definition of fair.

S: You read a list of roles that they need and you feel very excited… like, I can play this, I can play that. And, at the end, you see a note: ‘All roles preferred for Chinese.’ It’s kind of frustrating after a while.

E: In theatre, there’s a lack of representation in the roles for some ethnicities. You won’t see someone writing a role for an Indian man with the exception of plays like ‘Off Centre’. And these plays are very rare. I think maybe playwrights could explore writing roles for non-Chinese actors, because this is what will give us opportunities.

S: It’s a bit frustrating when the roles are stereotypes. A lot of times, when I had to perform in films or in commercials, I have always been the Indian auntie, even though I’m too young to play an auntie. Or I have always been the Indian girl standing beside my father selling roti prata.

F: I’ve been in school shows where you have the token Chinese, Malay, Indian characters. And the Malay man must always wear a sarong and, if it’s an Indian man, it’s a sarong but it’s white in colour.

M: Ya, if you want to talk about that, I was in a Total Defence school show. And all the important teaching points about Total Defence were spoken by the Eurasian and Chinese actors, while the Malay or the Indian actors were there just to be the funny guys.

S: I’ve also had the experience where I go for casting calls and I overhear the director say, ‘Okay lah, she’s pretty for an Indian’. Does that mean all Indian women are not beautiful? And I think this way of talking is quite accepted, so they do not feel like they are saying something wrong. It’s like a compliment that I must accept, rather than [something that makes me] feel outraged.

E: They also say, ‘You speak very well for an Indian.’

Looking through the transcripts again, it was clear to me that what happened in that audition room with the Indian actor and the production team of Ah Boys To Men 4 cannot be viewed in isolation. There is a history behind it: of poor opportunities, poor representation, poor interpersonal skills by casting directors.

One could choose to be defensive about the whole matter, claiming that one actor’s experiences cannot stand in for what needs fixing in the industry. Or one could choose to be reflective and recognise that what happened was a symptom of something much larger, and that we will not find a cure if we keep denying the symptoms.

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