Indian-American filmmaker-actor-producer Sujata Day makes her directorial début with festival-favourite ‘Definition Please’, a film south Asians the world over will find inherently relatable
One of the most special parts of indie film Definition Please is that it was filmed at director-actor-producer Sujata Day’s childhood home. The inherent comfort is evident in the way lead character Monica (Sujata), her brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) and their mother Jaya (Anna Khaja) lounge about, and navigate the familiar space.
The comedy-drama follows 30-something Monica Chowdry who, during her childhood won the Scripps National Spelling Bee and catapulted to local fame, starring in lucrative advertisements and being recognised at her local grocer’s. Many would have assumed Monica (whose younger version is portrayed by Esha Chundru) would be making headlines well into her 30s but expectation does not always meet reality. Between caring for her unwell mother, dealing with an unpredictable brother, and holed up in her childhood treehouse, Monica faces a great deal of uncertainty in terms of career, relationships and self-image.
While many of us have, at some point, felt directionless, we haven’t necessaarily seen an uncensored and on-screen depiction of this in a south Asian context. Perhaps this, and the treatment of other themes in Definition Please, is why it just won the Narrative Award at San Francisco’s Center for Asian American Media Fest 2020.
Growing up brown
Tell this to Sujata, and she harks back to her own days growing up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, “The Indian-American kids in my community were always pushed to do their best: get into Ivy League schools, take AP classes, become doctors, and lawyers,” she says over a video call from Los Angeles, “When we reached 9th or 10th grade, one of our friends ran away from home. We saw the stress and pressure he was under; there were many signs of mental illness in our community that weren’t talked about.”
Like Monica, Sujata too won a spelling bee and went to the regionals. However, she recalls laughingly, she lost out on an easy word: ‘radish’, for which she was teased relentlessly. “Almost every year, a South Asian-American kid would win that competition,” before adding with a playful eye-roll, “It was amazing that that was where we excelled!”
In her time at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, where she pursued Engineering, she saw pressures amounting to suicide in many other students. She later transitioned to film, and during a sketch-writing class at University of California, Berkeley, she wrote a four-page sketch Where Are They Now: Spelling Bee Winners, exploring the idea of a past winner “growing up to be a loser”. It would be a project that would stay with her for a long time.
Sujata later became a Sundance alum after participating in a writing lab, and at the 2017 festival, she was entranced by friend and fellow filmmaker Justin Chon’s Gook. She learnt that Justin had scraped together whatever money he had and his friends for the project, which was part of the motivation she needed.
All of this would go on to become strong influences for Definition Please, in which Sujata wanted to “shine a light on the pressures placed on the children of immigrants, and how they need to do better than their parents.”
A team effort
To make this a reality, Sujata roped in Anna Khaja (Yes Man), Ritesh Rajan (The Jungle Book) and Lalaine (Lizzie McGuire) to play Monica’s closest confidantes, with realistic twists.
Sujata shares that Krista, played by Lalaine, is an amalgam of two of her own real-life best friends. “I’ve always always had such great female friendships in my life, and with this film, it was such a labour of love in terms of my childhood friends who were actually a part of this film. Kaitlin McHugh is is production designer. I’d also gone to middle school and high school with Rachel Vallozzi, the costume designer. I wanted the film to, therefore, portray strong female friendships in a strong, grounded way.”
Instead of perpetrating the stereotypical pressure-cooker mother, Jaya was written as loving, and comically stern with doses of dark humour. “Anna, who has a theatre background, brought so much surprise and authenticity to the role,” Sujata says, “and we had a great collaborative experience where a lot of questions were asked openly. She wanted to understand Jaya on an intimate level.”
Definition Please also touches upon the under-discussed intimacy between south Asian women. Characters Jaya and Monica, do have their contentious moments as do most mother-and-daughter duos. But there is also the very real deep love they have for each other, which Sujata did not want to censor. She recalls a special scene where Jaya cuddles her grown daughter in bed. It’s a quiet scene, but the kind that speaks emotional volumes. This became one of Sujata’s favourite scenes to do because of the connection she felt with Anna, and the characters’ connections too.
Deciding to use Sujata’s own childhood home in Greensburg was a no-brainer for production designer Kaitlin McHugh and for Sujata even when she was writing Definition Please. The filmmaker recalls with a fond smile how they had her parents stay at a hotel during production in 2019, because “We just took over their house. But when they came back, they saw what kind of production it was and they understood why they had to go. And then, Kaitlin offered up her treehouse for the film, too.”
Saving the best for last, Monica’s relationship with Sonny as a brother-sister duo is one to watch. Both are re-entering a phase of reconciliation — vacillations between discomfort, moments of love, and wariness — as Sonny struggles with bipolar disorder and Monica with anxiety and depression. Sujata and Ritesh — whom she affectionately nicknames ‘Tesh’ —became fast friends a couple of years ago, having realised they both had auditioned for the live-action Aladdin. Later, for a live show they sang a parody of ‘A Whole New World’ instead called ‘A Diverse Film’, but with the same melody. “We worked together really well then, so when I was writing Sonny, I knew I wanted Ritesh to play him,” she asserts, before cheekily adding, “I will give myself the credit that I hired an awesome cast!”