Sujata Day is over Indian stereotypes; in 'Definition Please,' she spells out her own story
Sujata Day reached the breaking point.
"There was a year during pilot season when all of the Indian American female roles were tied to some kind of arranged marriage plotline," she tells the American-Statesman over the phone last week. “I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I can't do this anymore,’ because me and my Indian American friends growing up, that's not something that we ever experienced with our parents or our families. Although there are some great movies and TV shows that have a plot line like that, it just doesn't have to be every single plot line.”
So, Day started writing her own roles. The Pittsburgh native makes a star turn as Monica Chowdry, a former spelling bee champ turned slacker, in the comedy-drama “Definition Please.” She also directed and produced the film, which will be the closing night feature for the Austin Asian American Film Festival’s virtual/in-person hybrid event this year.
In the film, Monica grapples with feelings of lost promise while balancing a lot: caring for an ailing mother (played by Anna Khaja), mourning her late father, hooking up with hotties in cars and tutoring a little girl for, yes, spelling bee success. Also, she’s barely maintaining a frayed relationship with her brother Sonny (played by Ritesh Rajan), who has his own mental health battles.
Fans of HBO’s “Insecure” might recognize Day as recurring character Sarah. The actress also played CeeCee in “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” the web series from “Insecure” creator/star Issa Rae. With “Definition Please,” Day tells a story that both eschews stereotypes and isn’t afraid to embrace the everyday experience of an Indian American family.
The Austin Asian American Film Festival runs June 4-20. Here’s our conversation with Day. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
I know that "Definition Please” isn't autobiographical, but you did mention that it felt deeply personal. I was curious, what are some of the parallels between Monica's experience and your own?
The basic premise of the movie was based on a real situation. All the way back to fourth grade, I won my class spelling bee. Then I went to regionals, and I lost in the first round with the word “radish.” I spelled it with two D's instead of one, and it was devastating. That memory has stayed with me for a very long time. If you talk to other spelling bee winners or contestants, they always know what word they lost on. It just becomes ingrained in your mind.
Flash forward to 2015. I was in an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch writing class, and we had to really churn out these sketches. We had to write one a week, and I was thinking of a subject. The one I decided to write was “Where Are They Now: Spelling Bee Winners.” If you google these spelling bee winners, they're all doing amazing things. They're working at NASA designing robots, winning the World Poker Tour. And in my sketch, the button was that this one young woman has grown up to not live up to her full potential. She was living in her mom's basement and without a job, without friends, and she just hadn't really amounted to much.
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I took that sketch idea that was just kind of running around in my mind for a couple years, and then I did the Sundance screenwriting lab in 2016 and went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 as one of their influencers. My friend ("Definition Please" consulting producer) Justin Chon's movie “Gook” was premiering that year. I watched the movie, and I was blown away. I cornered him at his premiere party and asked him how he got it made. He was like, “I asked friends and family for money, and we just did it on our own.” I was like, “Cool. That's what I'm going to do.” That's when I started writing the feature film version of “Definition Please." ...
Then I took into consideration movies that I was inspired by, like the Duplass brothers’ movies, and “The Skeleton Twins,” “You Can Count on Me,” "The Savages,” all these really great family drama/dramedies. I realized that there aren't a lot of sibling relationships shown in film, so I wanted to do that.
Other parts of the film that are based on my real life ... I am obsessed with masala Lay's potato chips. They are the very best flavor. The Thums Up cola (an Indian brand that features prominently in the movie) is a shock to your system. More than Pepsi or Coke, and it's really delicious. The other part was that it was shot in my parents’ house. It was shot in the house that I grew up in, so that that lends a sense of realness to the film.
You mentioned that the sibling relationship is something that you don't see on screen very often. I love "The Skeleton Twins,” too. I was glad that you mentioned that. Do you have a similar sibling relationship to the one that's portrayed in the film?
It's not similar to the one that I portrayed in the film. I do have a sibling, and it's a wonderful relationship. It has been for many, many years. But I was certainly inspired by my extended family and relationships that I saw amongst my cousins, and in terms of extended family members and friends who suffer from mental illness.
Also with the family dynamic, there's some pretty heavy moments in this film about the pressure to succeed put on children by their parents, and your character's mother having remorse about that. What was it like to film those scenes for you and the other actors? That felt really raw.
It was actually really fun! I felt that I did a great job in terms of casting the film, and surrounded myself with amazing actors who were very prepared when they got to set and were emotionally available and felt safe in terms of being vulnerable. It was really fun to be in those scenes, and also to react to a lot of those moments, because it did feel so real.
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LeVar Burton has a cameo. How did he get involved with this project?
That's a good question! So pre-pandemic: I have a group of friends, (and) we would get together every Sunday. We call ourselves the “Blerd Brunch,” and it's Black and brown nerds that get together. It's writers, executives, directors, actors, this amazing group of creative people. When we were sitting down at brunch one time, LeVar walked by the restaurant, and (“Community” actress and “Definition Please” associate producer) Yvette Nicole Brown, who's one of our fellow blerds, she ran outside to get him, because she knows him. Then he came up inside and joined us for brunch.
Yes! And he as soon as he sat down, he said, “Take out your phone. I'm gonna give you my phone number. Put it in your phone.” He was just so giving and loving that first time. He basically joined the Blerd Brunch. A couple months later, I texted him — I was very hesitant about texting him. But I texted him, and I was like, “Hey, would you want to do a cameo in my indie film?” He asked to read the scene ... and he said yes. I was floored and so excited. ... He was just so wonderful to cast and crew. Even after we were done shooting, he stood up there and said, “So does anyone want a picture with me?” And of course, everyone did. It was a really wonderful moment.
After that, LeVar came to me and (“Definition Please” executive producer) Dan Evans, who is another member of the Blerds, and we came up with the idea of “This is My Story,” which is the web series on everyday racism that we shot and put up on YouTube in late 2019. We are currently working on Season 2 of that.
You’ve mentioned how important it is to create roles that you want to see, that accurately reflect your life experiences and that don't fall back on tropes and stereotypes. Could you talk a little bit about what you had in mind going into “Definition Please” that you wanted to show?
I've been auditioning for film and TV in Hollywood for a while, and I noticed that there were very specific roles that would be coming my way, and very specific scripts. I knew that these were roles that I would probably take just for, you know, trying to pay the rent, but it wasn't something that I was dying to play. … There was a time when we had to do accents, where I had to wear a hijab to go to an audition, even though I'm not Muslim, and it was all adding up to all the stereotypes and tropes.
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I knew from being on the “Awkward Black Girl” journey alongside Issa Rae … I saw that she was seeing that similar thing happening with Black women characters, and she did something about it. She made her own web series, and the character was different than anything you've ever seen on film and TV before that. I was inspired to write my own characters. ... I knew that I wanted to base them on my life, and my cousins’ lives, and my friends’ lives that I grew up with, and have it be more real, as opposed to, oh, we're always dancing to a Bollywood song, or we're always at a wedding. Just the similar images that we keep seeing over and over again in our media. I want us to break free from that with my film, as well.
2021 Austin Asian American Film Festival
When: June 4-20
What: This year, the annual festival will be a hybrid of online and in-person screenings. There will be three drive-in events: opening night's "Fan Girl" at Community First Village; centerpiece film (and South by Southwest breakout) "Inbetween Girl," from Austin filmmaker Mei Makino, on June 11 at Pioneer Farms; and closing night's "Definition Please" at Pioneer Farms. All the headliner films will be available online, too, and the drive-in screenings start at 7:30 p.m. The festival also will present premiere screening of "Night on Sixth," along with a comedy showcase by Yola Lu and Tai Nguyen, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. on June 16 at the Long Center Terrace.
Tickets: Passes to the virtual program cost $125 and do not include access to the in-person events. Tickets to the drive-in shows cost $35 per car, with an option to add on a virtual program pass for $99. Tickets to the Long Center screening start at $12. Single film tickets for the rest of the program go on sale June 4.
Find the full film lineup and buy tickets: aaafilmfest.org/2021-aaaff