How Insecure alum Sujata Day made her debut feature film on her own terms
Definition Please is now playing at virtual film fests.
Founded in 1925, the Scripps National Spelling Bee might as well be the Super Bowl for academically inclined kids. Former champs, many of them Indian Americans, have gone on to reach great heights, like gaining triple PhDs or working at NASA.
Or, perhaps, like making a movie. Insecure alum Sujata Day, who's been an avid watcher of the competition since she won her fourth-grade spelling bee, used the trend for inspiration in her film Definition Please, which asks: What would it look like for an Indian kid to win the prestigious trophy, only to grow up and "realize that she's a loser"?
The idea began as a bit she penned for a sketch writing class in 2015, and over time she found answers in the character Monica Chowdry (played by Day herself), whose anxieties over her estranged brother, Sonny (Russian Doll's Ritesh Rajan), and ailing mother (The Good Place's Anna Khaja) formed the crux of Definition Please, her feature directorial debut.
"It was really important for me to show a South Asian American family in the middle of very real problems that are universal to a lot of different families, not just Indian Americans," Day tells EW.
Like Monica, Day bypassed the careers expected of many Indian Americans, and Asian Americans overall. The actress, who played Sarah on Issa Rae's HBO series, got her engineering degree before coming to Hollywood. And with Definition Please, she made it on her own terms, outside the traditional studio system that often ignores people from marginalized backgrounds, with the advice and support from other creators of color.
Day, who produced the film in addition to serving as star, director, and writer, premiered Definition Please in August at the Bentonville Film Festival, the diversity-focused gathering co-founded by Geena Davis. And Oct. 9-10, she's also screening the movie at the Asian American International Film Festival. (Due to COVID-19, both events went virtual this year.)
At Bentonville, Day got to connect with other Asian American female creators in filmmaker Zooms, and she's looking forward to the same with AAIFF. Having Definition Please play the two festivals is also special to her because Day has previously screened shorts at both. "It feels like family," she says about returning.
During our conversation, Day repeatedly stresses the importance of community among artists of color, and expresses gratitude for the people who've uplifted her in her own career, like Rae, who brought her along for the hit web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and eventually, Insecure. It was witnessing the multihyphenate's process with self-financing ABG and taking a chance on her dreams that gave Day "the initial spark that lit the fire for Definition Please."
Later, in 2017, she turned to her friend Justin Chon, whose film Gook won the Audience Award at Sundance that year, for advice on making her own film. He said that his feature was shot guerrilla-style with the help of friends and family, and Chon's do-it-yourself spirit was the impetus for Day to write Definition Please as a feature film.
Besides the artists she's been able to work with, Day says she's deeply inspired by writer-actors like Mindy Kaling and Kumail Nanjiani, who have helped open the floodgates for her and other South Asian American creators.
Still, there remains a lack of media about mental illness from a South Asian American perspective, which spurred Day to explore the theme through Sonny's bipolar disorder, as she saw firsthand how mental illnesses — and the stigma against talking about them — affected her friends and family members when she was growing up.
Knowing she was treading new ground on the subject, Day made sure she was authentically representing the realities of living with bipolar disorder. She researched the condition and spoke to doctors, and Rajan consulted with a psychiatrist on his portrayal as well.
"I don't see [mental illness] portrayed a lot on screen, especially in our communities," Day says. "That was something that I felt like I wanted to get correct and right, because there's nowhere to look in terms of, 'Oh, I'm going to watch this movie, and it'll open my eyes about mental illness, or this TV show, and it'll break open something that I'd never seen before.' So that was something that I really focused on."
Day says she hopes Definition Please opens up more conversations around mental illness, as well as other subjects like the model-minority stereotype. And while she wrote the film for "South Asian American kids and families," her mind has been blown by how it's resonated with people from all walks of life.
The making of the film could also help "inspire the next generation of filmmakers" to go out and create their own projects, like she did.
"What's been happening in terms of the people I've talked to who've seen the movie, or audience members at these film festivals. The first thing they say is, 'Oh, I never knew that my story was important enough to tell' and, 'This movie has inspired me to actually write a script about it and make a short film or make a feature,'" Day says. "And that's really what I want to hear. And I get really excited when filmmakers get inspired because I think I have been inspired by so many people who have come before me. And so to hear that is really an icing on the cake."
The 43rd Asian American International Film Festival runs through Oct. 11, and its selections also include Paper Tigers, Death of Nintendo, the documentary A Thousand Cuts, and Monsoon, starring Henry Golding.