“This industry can be so gruelling. It’s full of rejections and letdowns. You need to have thick skin. Yet, you also need to be vulnerable in front of the camera or on stage. Very rarely do you get to celebrate your wins. It’s very antithetical to your behaviour to relish the positives.
When I found out I won Best Supporting Actor at the Asian Academy Creative Awards (AACA), I was in shock. My mum and I watched the announcement online. As soon as my name was announced in the national category, we both jumped and screamed in excitement.
It hasn’t properly sunken in yet. I’ve been working so hard for so long to let my work speak for itself. Finally, for the first time, my work is being recognised. There’s this bizarre sense of relief, but I’ve also not allowed myself to fully celebrate.
I won the award for my role in the second season of TiTouDao. It is actually a TV adaptation of an original play by Goh Boon Teck, first staged by Toy Factory. It is based on the true life story of Boon Teck’s mother, Madam Oon Ah Chiam, a famous wayang performer in the 60s.
I play Vijay Kapoor, a movie director who’s making Pontianak films in the early 70s. He has big dreams for his art form, but he also has a huge ego and gets into a lot of silly antics. The drama itself is quite heavy, but my character provides the comic relief.
When I was preparing for the role of Vijay, I was very much inspired by P. Ramlee. He was not only a legendary actor, but also a film director who championed Singapore cinema during its golden age.
I had such a great time playing Vijay because he’s so eccentric, but I had to make sure he didn’t come across as annoying, you know? He can be very strong-minded and adamant about the bold ideas he has. He’ll go from zero to 100 in an instant.
Vijay has a lot of emotional outbursts, and it’s my job to colour each outburst differently. In that particular scene, was he feeling betrayed? Was he frustrated at his inability to express himself? Or was it a genuine sense of defeat, and an inability to accept that defeat?
I think we are definitely seeing a huge growth, especially in terms of the quality of roles being written for minority actors. Singapore’s system is also unique, because for every new production, there is a racial quota that must be met on some level.
After that whole controversial saga around my audition for Ah Boys to Men 4 in 2017, I think I’m seeing less and less roles which are purely caricatures of a racial minority. I don’t think there’s much of that anymore in Singapore.
Yes, there are certain roles that are still stereotypical, but they’re not intended to be the butt of a joke. For example, it is true that certain communities tend to gravitate towards certain jobs. That observation is rooted in reality, and it isn’t necessarily bad.
When I was in the Third Rail, I played a train hijacker. Someone might say, ‘That’s a stereotype, isn’t it? A brown man with a beard was cast as a hijacker.’ But if you actually watched the show, you’ll realise that the other hijackers are not minorities. I’m the only one.
My character was also a tech genius. He invented some kind of security encryption software. One can assume I’m the token Indian who got the role because Indians are good in tech. But my character was given a proper background story, detailing how he became a hijacker.
Friends who watch my shows are always pleasantly surprised. The shows are bingeable. The quality has improved drastically from what they remembered in their childhood.
Yes, our budget is smaller compared to American or Korean productions, but MediaCorp is working with more production houses to make quality English-language shows. The writing, storytelling, quality of direction and acting have improved over the years.
I’m very thankful to be part of the shows I’ve been in. This Land is Mine, which is a period drama on Post-War Singapore, won multiple international awards. Third Rail was also a groundbreaking show with the use of CGI. If we support local, we should be very proud.
I’m also thankful and relieved to have moved on from that 2017 saga. But as an actor, following your dreams is still a difficult thing to do in Singapore. Not to say that the system makes it impossible – I don’t think it does – but the market is small. The audience is small.
And our society is expensive to live in. You need to earn a certain income to survive. But as a full-time freelancer or self-employed person in this industry, you cannot compare yourself to peers who have a fixed monthly income.
There will be low income periods, and you will feel crappy. I call it the Seasonal Occupational Depression.
Knowing this, if you still want to be an actor, a musician, singer or what have you, then you have to be very, very clear on what drives you. If you find value not from materialistic things but in living meaningfully, then your dreams are worth pursuing.
If you are dedicated, resilient and have thick skin. If the art you make – as an actor, musician, singer or dancer – brings you and the people around you joy, then all I can say is be really, really good at what you do. Let your work speak for you.” – Shrey Bhargava
AACA is happening at Chijmes on 7th December 2023. Shrey will be representing Singapore against eight other nations for the grand title of Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the Gala Awards.