Sujata Day On Telling Authentic South Asian Stories With ‘Definition, Please’

Sujata Day, who rose to fame in Issa Rae’s breakout web comedy The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, is in the director’s chair with her new independent film, Definition, Please. Day also stars in the movie as Monica, a former spelling bee champion who has now grown up into a woman who feels aimless in life. Her struggles magnify when her older brother Sunny (Ritesh Rajan) comes back home to celebrate their father’s death anniversary. She tries to figure out what she wants from her life while realizing her brother’s poor mental health also hinders him from fully living. 

In a recent interview I held with Day, she talked about the positive reception Definition, Please has received, including winning Best Narrative Feature at CAAM Fest 2020 and Best “Made In PA” Feature at the Centre Film Festival 2020. It was also called one of the Best Films of 2020 by Earth To Films, with Day and Rajan also being named among the top 10 most talked-about international actors of Indian origin of 2020 by Vogue India. These are only just a handful of accolades.

“It’s a little bit surprising, I suppose,” she said. “…I was focused on telling a story. Like, a really authentic story for South Asian American folks to enjoy and [for] South Asian American audiences. When our trailer dropped, not only did the South Asian community embrace it, but also Asian Americans, Black Americans and white Americans. So I was just very surprised by the reception outside of the demographic I was really shooting for. It’s been really really great, just going around to all these virtual film festivals…getting tweets and getting emails about how people really connected to the film and that’s been really fulfilling.”

Part of Definition, Please came from Day’s own experience as a spelling bee contestant. 

“I was thinking back to fourth grade when I won my class spelling bee. Then I went to regionals and I lost in the first round on the word ‘radish’ and I was pretty devastated,” Day said. “I came back to school and my friends started clowning me for losing out on such an easy word, and I was like, that’s okay, I deserve being made fun of because it was such an easy word. I was just really nervous.”

She said that thinking about that experience tied into how she started seeing South Asian American kids dominate in the national spelling bee. The two points of reference led to Day creating a sketch while in an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch writing class. Her sketch envisioned a “Where Are They Now” special tracking down former spelling bee winners and what they’re doing in their lives.

“They’re designing robots and airplanes and winning on the world poker tour and doing just these really cool careers and ocupations. And my sketch ended with a girl who didn’t really amount to much. She wasn’t successful,” she said. “And then in 2017, I started writing the feature film version of Definition, Please based on that four-page sketch idea…a feature version [of] a former spelling bee champion who grows up into a young adult and she hasn’t achieved what she was really meant to achieve in her life. She hasn’t lived up to her potential. So what are the reasons why? That’s what I wanted to explore in the film.”

A young girl goes for spelling bee gold in Definition, Please. (Photo credit: June Street Productions)
A young girl goes for spelling bee gold in Definition, Please. (Photo credit: June Street Productions)

Day’s reasons for Monica’s delayed success include her relationships with her mother, Jaya (Anna Khaja) and Sunny. By extension, Monica’s relationship with her father (Sunkrish Bala) is also concerning since she was the perfect, successful child in her father’s eyes, compared to Sunny, who was seen as not good enough. 

Sunny’s unresolved childhood trauma fuels his bipolar disorder, a condition he doesn’t correctly treat with therapy or medication. 

Day said Sunny’s struggles, plus his strained relationship with his family, highlight how mental health is often hidden in South Asian families. 

“We do not treat mental illness as an actual health problem,” she said. “We attempt to stay away from talking about it, or tend to hide it. It’s [seen as] very shameful; it’s [seen as] a sign of weakness.”

“I grew up in a pretty white town in the suburs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was really lucky becuase there were three temples in the city,” she said. “So I would hang out with my school friends on weekdays, but then I have this really amazing Indian-American community that I hung out with…So I noticed within our community that there were kids among us that had mental illness.”

“There was a boy who ran away from home for two or three weeks, and his parents would ask the rest of us about why would he run away from home? [We would say] he’s depressed, he’s stressed out, it’s anxiety, and the parents would just be like, ‘Oh, but we give him everything. We give him a roof over his head, we give him food, he goes to a good school,'” she continued. “So the parents were almost not dealing with these first generation kids that just didn’t know how to handle stress and also handle their parents’ sacrifice of coming to America and being better–getting a better job or getting into an ivy league school or doing really good and [taking] AP courses. So I just noticed that this was something that was happening amongst us. And there were people in my extended family with bipolar disorder–aunts, uncles, cousins. And I just noticed it all around and I noticed that nobody was talking about anything. So that was part of the inspiration for crafting Sunny’s character.”

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Sunny’s struggles of trying to live up to his father’s ideals also came from Day’s observations of her friends and their pressures of living up to the community and cultural expectations. 

“There’s a lot of pressure placed on, especially, the first born child to become a doctor or work on Wall Street and make money to take care of the rest of [the family],” she said. “I wanted to show a relationship that was inspired by these immigrant families and the pressure they could place on the first child, especially if it’s a son.”

” You can see how the relationship between both siblings is different. Their father did not treat Sunny well. Sunny had school problems. Maybe he wasn’t the best student and didn’t do the best with grades or on tests and didn’t really go to the best school,” she continued. “Whereas with Monica, she did all of those things. She was a spelling bee champion. You can tell, even in those beginnging flashbacks, Monica’s father is so proud of her. And I wanted to show this kind of preferential treatment of children and how it manifests within sibling relationships. I wanted to show how that impacts children as they grow into adults as well.”

Ritesh Rajan and Sujata Day as Sunny and Monica sitting on the grass in Definition, Please. (Photo credit: June Street Productions)
Ritesh Rajan and Sujata Day as Sunny and Monica in Definition, Please. (Photo credit: June Street Productions)

One of Day’s goals with Sunny’s character was to show how mental illness can affect an entire family, not just the person suffering from it. In the film, Jaya caves into his outbursts, creating a dysfunctional relationship that verges on harboring mental abuse. Monica, who gets hit by the shrapnel of Sunny and Jaya’s dysfunction, ends up feeling emotionally drained from trying to manage both her brother and mother’s emotions. Everyone is doing their best to cope with Sunny’s unresolved emotional wounds, but no one is getting to the root of the problem, which keeps Sunny swinging from bouts of control to emotional outbursts. 

With that said, Day also shows how Sunny is a nice person who wants to be a great big brother and son underneath it all. He is just as tired of his mental state as everyone else is. But he doesn’t know how to cope with his trauma–yet. I mentioned that I felt like Sunny was on the verge of getting help after a critical moment in the film, and she agreed. 

“I love that you felt that in a few years, Sunny would be able to admit that this was happening and get some help because I definitely wanted to leave the audience and viewers with a feeling of hope,” said Day. “Not necessarily tying everything up in a bow, but to show that he was on a path towards healing.”

Monica’s bright spots in her life are her burgeoning relationship with her grade school crush Richie, played by The Sun is Also a Star and Single Parents‘ Jake Choi. Their relationship doesn’t have fanfare, but viewers looking for representation in on-screen romance won’t miss it. 

“That was definitely on purpose,” she said. “When I was writing the script, I did not really have the exact idea of what he was goign to look like. I was definitely thinking of a wide range of actors and ther were white boys on [the list] as well.”

She said she had become friends with Choi a few months before and envisioned him in the role after mulling over the choices for Richie. 

“I just thought of him and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s hot–he’d be great for this role,” she said laughing. “And i also knew that he was a great actor and that he would be down to come to Pennsylvania for a couple of days. So, I texted him and he said yes even before reading the script.”

“I didn’t really think about like, ‘Oh, he’s an Asian guy.’ I think for me, I’m surrounded by so many types of people who are just my friends and in my immediate circle. With Jake, I was just like, ‘Oh, he’s a hot guy.’ I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Oh, he’s a hot Asian guy. We’d be making a statement by pairing up with a South Asian American woman and an East Asian man,'” Day continued. I wasn’t really thinking about all of that. I was really like, ‘Oh, he’s a good-looking guy who would be really believable in this role. And I would love to act with him because he’s so talented.'”

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Day mentioned Rajan was the one who talked about the indirect commentary the film made on relationships while on set. 

“He mentioned something like, ‘Oh, is this the first time a South Asian American girl has been paired up with an Asian guy?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that, but cool,” she said. “I don’t really enjoy being the first of anything. I want there to be more pairings like this. In my work, in my writing, I do strive to break stereotypes and I do want to put on screen what is actually happening in my real life and amongst my friends and that’s what’s happening. Even the doctor in one of the last scenes of Definition, Please, he’s a good friend of mine, Tim Chiou. I actually did right the role exactly for Tim becaues I’m always thinking of him for hot Asian guy roles or just hot guy roles in general. I think I do try to make a point to [show how] an audience or viewers have been seeing Asian guys in a certain way for a really long time in TV and film, and I did want to flip that stereotype in my film.”

Choi isn’t the only big name in the film. Along with Day, Rajan and Khajan, there’s Lizzie McGuire star Lalaine, the legendary LeVar Burton, and Outsourced and Connecting…‘s Parvesh Cheena, among others. Day said it was easy to create such a cast because they are all part of her friend group. 

“All of these actors are my friends,” she said. “I didn’t have any casting session; I just texted my friends and they were gracious enough to say yes.”

Take, for instance, asking Lalaine to play Monica’s best friend, Krista. 

“I was actually really nervous. Was she going to want to act?” Day said. “She read the script and she said she cried while she was reading it. She was on board.”

Burton joined Day’s circle of friends thanks to the film’s associate producer Yvette Nicole Brown, who is part of the same group of diverse Hollywood creatives Day is in. The group hangs out for breakfast or, in the case of these coronavirus times, over Zoom every Sunday. One Sunday, back when we were still meeting people in public, Brown invited Burton to their table. Burton ends up giving everyone at the table his number so he can stay in touch. 

“I grew up watching Reading Rainbow. He’s a legend,” said Day. “I was just going back and forth in my head, ‘Should I text him?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I can text him,’ and so I just texted him with, ‘Would you be in my movie?’ And he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll do it.'”

“He did the scene and he was so lovely. Even after he was done shooting, he [asked], ‘Does anybody want to get their picture with me?’ And then all the cast and crew were like, ‘Yes!’ …He was just so giving.”

Burton’s role in Definition, Please led Burton to ask Day to join him on a YouTube series he was doing about racism’s macro and micro-aggressions. 

“It was really fulfilling to work on him with that as well,” she said. 

Day recently celebrated another fulfilling moment in her career–the 10th anniversary of Awkward Black Girl. Day recounted how she met Rae over Twitter and auditioned for Rae’s best friend’s role after reading Rae’s Twitter casting call. 

The series began filming in the hallway of Rae’s father, a doctor. Those meager beginnings didn’t prepare Day for how Awkward Black Girl became a revolutionary series for fans clamoring for diversity–both in terms of race and in characterizations of Black women. 

“It started to blow up and none of us thought that was going to happen. It was obviously a no brainer–like, ther are people who want to see it. There are people who need to see it,” she said. “We’ve never seen a Black girl’s story like this on screen. That also was inspiring to me. Issa would say to me, ‘I’ve got to write by Black girl story; you’ve got to write your Brown girl story.’…It was just really special being a part of that journey.”

Rae and Day’s friendship and professional collaborations are still going strong–if you watch Insecure regularly, you might have seen Day in the pilot for Insecure. Not only are Day and Rae changing Hollywood with their writing, but the other members of Insecure, including Bigger‘s Tristen J. Winger and Girls Trip writer Tracey Oliver are also remaking Hollywood. 

“It’s just a testament to the team and the energy that was all around us,” she said. “It was so positive and loving and it was just a really great ABG fam.”

Day is currently promoting Definition, Please with the hopes of securing a buyer, but the film certainly isn’t the last story she has to tell. While the pandemic has put some of her creative projects on hold, the talent showcased in Definition, Please proves Day will be part of the next wave of Hollywood’s ongoing cultural and racial renaissance. 

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