Sujata Day’s ‘Definition Please’ is a Love Letter to South Asian American Families

Day’s debut film takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions, grief, mental health and the model minority myth, all through the unique lens of a South Asian American family.

Day’s debut film takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions, grief, mental health and the model minority myth, all through the unique lens of a South Asian American family.

(Photo: Array)

by Sabra Ismath
January 21, 2022

With new titles coming to Netflix Canada this year, among them is a moving feature film from actor-writer-director Sujata Day: Definition Please.

The movie, which is executive produced by Mindy Kaling, is about former Bengali-American Spelling Bee champ, Monica Chowdry (played by Day), still living in her hometown of Greensburg, Pa. with her ill mother Jaya (Anna Khaja) after graduating college. As Chowdry finds herself stuck and unsure of where to go next in her life (all while tutoring children in her neighbourhood on the side), things take a turn as her older brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) returns, leaving Chowdry to try to make sense of her life and the relationships she has with her family. 

Day, who plays Sarah on HBO’s Insecure, debuted Definition Please back in 2020, which led to some notable awards including Best Narrative Feature at CAAM Fest, Best Feature Film at Indian Film Festival of Cincinnati, Outstanding Directorial Debut Award at the South Asian Film Festival of America, and Fresh Narrative Voice at LA Asian Pacific Film Festival. The story touches on themes of model minority myth, grief and mental health, all from a uniquely South Asian American lens. 

“I wanted to portray how first-generation [children] grow up in [North America]. I didn’t want the conflict to be about culture but wanted the culture to be there,” Day tells The RepresentASIAN Project

Though the film isn’t autobiographical, it was inspired by Day’s own life, where she had won a spelling bee in her fourth grade. (When going to regionals, however, Day recalls misspelling the word ‘radish’ on the first round.) She describes it as a love letter to South Asian American families who stay true to their Indian culture, but have also embraced the potential of the “American Dream.”

Sujata Da as Monica Chowdry and Ritesh Rajan as Sonny Chowdry. (Photo: June Street Productions)

As a Hollywood actress, Day struggled to find roles that she wanted to play. She found herself auditioning for stereotypical Asian and Indian roles where the character would be a doctor, in tech, or be part of the very common arranged marriage plot. 

With Definition Please, she was able to create her own characters that felt authentic and not confined to stereotypes. 

“It was really important for me to show that we are not monoliths,” she explains. “I wanted to show a real life, every day South Asian American girl going about her business, taking care of her mom. She’s a tutor. She’s in touch with her community.”

Sujata Day as Monica Chowdry. (Photo: Array)

Though Monica is seen as the focal point, Day says the film is a story about the love that one has for their sibling and the complications that can arise within that relationship. Mental health—something that is usually swept under the rug in South Asian families, plays a big role with Sonny, Chowdry’s older brother, refusing to address his bipolar disorder, causing a back and forth between the two Chowdry siblings. 

Chowdry’s mother, Jaya, is a representation of the Indian-American parents Day grew up around. She’s different from other portrayals of South Asian mothers in that she shows a softer side filled with so much life. She has a calming, yet put-together personality which grounds her children as they try to find calmness and definition in their own lives.

Sujata Day as Monica Chowdry. (Photo: Array)

Even with Chowdry’s love interest, the trope of a brown girl falling for a white boy isn’t portrayed. Day says in the beginning of the casting processes, there were a lot of talks of having a white actor play the role but Jake Choi changed her mind. 

“I met Jake Choi, and I was like, ‘He’s it, he’s super hot, he’s gonna be the guy.’”

Day hopes this film will open the gates for the many unheard stories of South Asian Americans while simultaneously creating conversations about mental health. Her passion for creating real, raw and authentic stories of minorities in America shines brightly in this project from the writing of the script, to the directing, and through Monica Chowdry.

Definition Please begins streaming on Netflix on January 21, 2022.

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