In Definition Please, her feature directorial debut, actress Sujata Day (Insecure) plays Monica, a former spelling bee champion who is still coasting off that win well into adulthood. The character spends her days tutoring other young Indian-American spelling bee hopefuls and lives at home while caring for her sick mother. That is until her estranged brother comes to town to commemorate the one-year memorial of their late father and disrupts the dull rhythm she’s been chugging along to for a while.
Day also wrote the script for Definition Please and produced the movie through her production company, Atajus (her first name spelled backward). Full of wordplay and strong but understated performances, the dramedy is noteworthy for its refreshing depiction of a modern South Asian American family.
Since its festival premiere in the fall of 2020, the movie has received accolades and positive press, but it wasn’t until last September that Definition Please caught its break. While screening at the 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, it caught the eye of Ava DuVernay’s production company. “It was a really serendipitous call,” Day told me recently, ahead of the movie’s premiere on Netflix. “We were waiting to find a home and we ended up finding the perfect home with Ava and ARRAY.”
Talking by phone, Day and I also discussed how the movie pays homage to Bollywood and why she never wants to be a producer again. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
You started pitching Definition Please back in 2018, right? I’m curious about what your pitch deck looked like, which films it referenced to communicate the tone you were going for, and what the initial reactions were to your idea.
You know what? I did not have a pitch deck at the time and maybe that was my issue [laughs]. I made my pitch deck for the movie in January of 2019 for the investors. During 2018 I soft pitched it to production companies that I already made shows with or was friends with, and it was more of a “I have a script, let me know what you think.” Certain places and people loved the script but it wasn’t something that they were making at the time. It was always a really nice “no.” Maybe it wouldn’t have been a no if I had a pitch deck.
This film’s a dramedy. It has a majority South Asian cast. You explore mental illness. What were they most hesitant about?
I think in general, family dramedies are not a money-making endeavor in Hollywood, no matter who you cast in it. Even if it’s a white cast or has a superstar celebrity is in it, those kinds of films are hard to push forward. I think the addition of having a South Asian cast, no celebrity names attached to it… I don’t think the fact that it dealt with mental health was a turnoff. I think it was more just a general feeling that these kinds of movies are hard to invest in because these bigger companies are not going to make their money back.
You shot this in your hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, right? How similar are Monica and her neighborhood to you and the Indian community you grew up in?
So, it’s not autobiographical, but it’s a very personal film to me because I took my childhood and my friends and my family members and put bits of them throughout the film. The initial inspiration was definitely me winning my fourth-grade spelling bee in school and then moving on to regionals and losing in the first round on the word “radish,” which I spelled with two d’s instead of one.
That initial inspiration led to me writing a four-page comedy sketch in 2015 at Upright Citizens Brigade. A “where are they now”about spelling bee winners. If you Google them, they’re all doing really fantastic things. They’re changing the world. They’re scientists at NASA. They’re winning the World Poker Tour. And so in my sketch, the button of it was that this young woman had grown up to not achieve much of anything at all and she hadn’t lived up to her potential and she’s still living at home with her mom and she’s smoking weed. She’s the exact opposite of what you envision a model minority to be.
I knew I wanted to base my feature on that and take it further and explore her relationships with her family and her community. I asked myself, “Okay, what are the reasons why she hasn’t succeeded? What are the reasons why she hasn’t lived up to her potential?”
As you mentioned, Definition Please is all about potential or the idea of potential as something that can be wasted and who gets to determine that. We see that in Monica’s storyline and in a kind of parallel storyline with one of her students. What did you want this movie to say about the model minority myth?
As an actress in Hollywood, I get a lot of auditions for different roles and a lot of stereotypes come across my desk. I wanted to tell a different kind of story about South Asian Americans, one that we normally don’t see on screen. That was my main goal. I wanted to portray how we’re not a monolith, how not every South Asian American young woman is dealing with some kind of arranged marriage thing, not all of us have accents, not all of us are struggling with cultural identity.
That was what I was excited about in terms of writing Definition Please and putting it out there. All these things in the story are universal to all people, it just happens to be a South Asian American family.
Your debut feature being an indie film adds another layer of difficulty, but you maybe had an advantage because you starred in Issa Rae’s low-budget web series Awkward Black Girl. How did working on something of that scale prepare you for creating on an indie budget?
It prepared me a hundred percent. Being on Awkward Black Girl alongside Issa Rae, I saw exactly how the series got made. I saw Issa putting Awkward Black Girl on her credit card, so years later I knew that it was going to be no question of me putting Definition Please on my credit cards. I knew that investing in myself would yield really great results. Watching her push through and make Awkward Black Girl no matter what, and tell her own specific story about Black women, that was a huge inspiration for me to tell my story about young brown women and really prove that we can do it.
You make a really interesting stylistic choice to have definitions appear on screen throughout the movie in this dramatic blue filter, and Bollywood music. It’s an American indie film with Bollywood-esque visual flourishes. What’s behind that homage?
There’s actually kind of a deep reason for that. When you first watch the film you think, oh Sonny, which is Ritesh Rajan’s character, he’s dealing with the mental health issues. But then you also can see that Monica, my character, is also dealing with her own kind of mental health issues. I mean, she’s seeing words! She’s seeing the world through this insane blue filter and she’s stuck in arrested development and not able to move forward with her life. I think you see layers of characters dealing with their own mental health issues in different ways.
And, I really did want to pay homage. The song that plays throughout is directly inspired by some of my favorite Bollywood songs from the ’90s and 2000s, and I wanted to make sure that that was a really fun song that people would want to dance along to and would give people hope. What was exciting to me was to put my own Bengali twist on the Bollywood inspiration of it all.
Though there are a lot of strong women in Bollywood movies the industry definitely hues toward the male gaze and often objectifies women. In this movie, your gaze flips that with camera zooms on men’s butts and a more feminist framing of Monica exploring her sexuality. It’s mostly played for comedic effect but it’s also this subtly revolutionary thing for a South Asian American female screen protagonist. What was your goal with those scenes?
Once again, it was to change the perception of what Western audiences see as South Asian American characters on screen. Me and my friends are not necessarily dealing with arranged marriages; we are having fun out here and we’re dating and we’re experimenting with drugs. I wanted to make that a part of Monica’s character just because it’s something that I see in real life.
It was essential for me to show a grounded, realistic look at a young South Asian female who is not calling herself a strong, powerful woman. She just goes through life and makes certain choices, and these choices could be looked down upon, but it’s the choices that she has to live with and that I wanted to see on screen. Because I thought it would be a really fun thing to play with.
You’re credited as the writer, director, producer, and star of this movie. Which of those hats was the hardest to wear for this project?
Producer! Producer was the hardest hat because I do not enjoy asking people for money and that was my biggest job as the producer was to make sure that we got our financing. Even after asking people and them saying, “Yes, oh yeah, we’re going to give this chunk of money,” it was chasing after them to make sure that they were putting it in the bank account. It’s something that I actually never want to deal with again.
There are a lot of other people who are way better at producing than I am, and I was lucky enough to have Cameron Fife, who’s a very experienced independent film producer, come on board with me on this project. He was a lifesaver in terms of making the budget, making sure we had our days, and providing an amazing crew to help us shoot the movie. And so truly, hats off to all producers. It’s a tough job and you guys are all killing it.
You were also the casting director for this project. Can you talk about the process of casting a majority-Asian cast for those in the industry who claim non-white talent is hard to find?
So, I did not hold any auditions. I am very close with the South Asian American community in Hollywood. Throughout the years I’ve seen friends who are very recognizable on many TV shows and films but haven’t gotten their big break yet, so it was really exciting for me to be able to reach out to them via a text or email and just offer them roles. I really just made a list, and I offered my friends these roles, and I’m so grateful that they said yes to coming out and staying in Greensburg with me and shooting the movie.
How did the LeVar Burton cameo happen?
I’m in a group of friends called the Blerd Brunch Group and it’s Black and brown nerds who get together every Sunday. Even during the pandemic, we would get on Zoom and hang out. We were sitting at our table one Sunday and LeVar Burton happened to walk by, and one of the other Blerds, Yvette Nicole Brown, had worked with him before and she was like, “Oh, I’m going to go out and get him and then introduce him to everybody.” So he just came in and was a sweetheart. And he said, “Take out your phones and take my phone number.” He was just so giving, and obviously, he’s such a legend. It was amazing to have him join our Blerd group.
And then I had already written the script, and that character was in the script, so I tweaked it a little bit to make it LeVar’s voice and then I just texted him and I said, “Hey, I wrote a little cameo for you in my film. No worries if you don’t have time or if you don’t want to do this,” and sent him the scene. And he was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And I was like, “Oh my God. This is wild.” And he came out and he was just really amazing on set. Even after he was done shooting, he made this announcement: “If anybody wants a picture with me, let’s do it.” And of course, everybody got a picture with him and it was just a really beautiful, beautiful, moment.
Many shows and movies have benefited from what’s called the “Netflix bump.” What do you hope happens when this film reaches a wider audience?
Well, I’ve never heard of that, but that’s really cool. I hope Definition Please gets a Netflix bump. That’s really exciting. I made this movie, honestly, to inspire others to tell their own stories and to not be afraid. Throughout our virtual film festival run, I’ve been getting DMs and emails and messages from young South Asian Americans thanking me for representing them on screen and telling me that it has inspired them to write their own short stories or poems or films. That’s the most exciting thing for me. We need more of us writing and creating stories and proving to Hollywood that there is an audience out there for content like this.
Definition Please premieres on Netflix on January 21st.