“Definition Please” stars Sujata Day and Ritesh Rajan spoke with NextShark about normalizing South Asian American stories and erasing the shame behind mental illness in celebration of the film’s re-release on Netflix
“Definition Please” first premiered at the 2020 Bentonville Film Festival, where it received rave reviews from audiences. It has since won multiple awards, including the Outstanding Directorial Debut Award at South Asian Film Festival of America and the Special Jury Award for Fresh Narrative Voice at Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
The 2020 film, which was inspired by Day’s own elementary school spelling bee victory and regional loss, follows Monica Chowdry (Day), a former National Spelling Bee champion rehashing her relationship with her estranged brother Sonny (Rajan).
Sonny, who suffers from bipolar disorder, returns to his hometown in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to reunite with his sister and mother Jaya, played by Anna Khaja, for the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. Monica and Sonny’s ailing mother hopes it will be a chance for her children to reconnect and get along.
Director, writer and actor Day embodies Monica’s fears and frustrations as she navigates adulthood stagnation while dealing with her family’s unsettled issues, in particular, her tense relationship with Sonny mostly stemming from his untreated mental disorder.
“Everything I write is inspired by something real that has happened to me or my friends, and I fictionalize the story from there,” Day said. “In 2015, I was in an Upright Citizens Brigade comedy sketch writing class, and one of my sketches was entitled ‘Where Are They Now: Spelling Bee Winners.’ If you Google former spelling bee champs, they’re all doing amazing things like winning the World Poker Tour or designing spaceships at NASA.”
“The punchline in my sketch was that one of these winners had grown up to not live up to her potential. She’s still living at home, putzing around her neighborhood, doing drugs,” she explained. “I took this four-page sketch and expanded it into the feature film version of ‘Definition Please,’ exploring why this young woman was stuck in this state of arrested development. It’s a personal story, but not autobiographical.”
Day explains that while the phrase “Definition, please?” is asked by spelling bee contestants to clarify a term they are tasked with, it holds a double meaning for her, as Monica finds herself in a state of stuckness, searching for definition in her own life.
Representation without explanation
Day, who is known for her roles in shows like Issa Rae’s “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” and HBO’s “Insecure,” hoped her film would normalize South Asian American stories. She wanted viewers to see that the tribulations of a South Asian American family could be relatable to anyone outside of the Asian diaspora.
“As an actor, I’ve been on so many stereotypical auditions, and audiences get used to seeing these same depictions over and over,” Day said. “I’d love for audiences to feel a sense of hope and also see themselves or people they know in some of our characters and journeys.”
Rajan, who portrayed Linus Ahluwalia on the Freeform TV series “Stitchers,” said that while the film centers on a South Asian family, it does not lean heavily on their cultural identities.
“We wanted to tell a story where being Indian wasn’t a crutch,” Rajan shared. “A lot of times when you see South Asian stories there’s a massive component of storytelling like, ‘Oh, we’re Asian, and this is what we do.’”
“Yes, we’re an Indian family, but we’re throwing you straight into the world of the customs and the cultures,” he added. “We’re not spending time explaining what the food is, what the clothes or religious ceremonies are. You’re just in the moment, in the shoes of somebody else and experiencing it. And if you can learn something from that, that’s wonderful. We focused on the relationships. We wanted people to relate to the emotions and not necessarily to the [Indian customs].”
The importance of South Asian representation
As an Indian American actor, Rajan feels a sense of responsibility to tell honest stories that reflect real narratives on screen. While he feels the pressure to succeed from his parents, both immigrant doctors, he shared that they have been very supportive of his career path. He views his artistry as a responsibility to spread Indian culture, to provide more representation for South Asians on the American screen and to honor his parents’ sacrifices that have given him the freedom to choose his career.
“There’s a certain level of wonder and imagination that sparks differently. There’s a certain level of inspiration that occurs when I’m watching other South Asian actors, and it’s like, ‘I can do that, too,’ and that’s something I never really had growing up,” he said. “You never know what kind of doors that will open and what future that will lead to. It makes me go, ‘Wow, is this what white people are experiencing all the time?’
“[Representation] really grabs you and inspires or triggers you to learn something,” Rajan added. “I want to tell more authentic stories. I want to tell stories about Indian American culture. And that’s what was a big thing for us – telling the most authentic story and telling the most authentic bipolar disorder through an Asian family lens.”
The actors hope to inspire South Asian artists to create their own work and tell their own stories. Rajan wants “Definition Please” to show people that “just because a movie focuses on a specific culture doesn’t mean that it can’t be mainstream or that it can’t be successful.”
Erasing shame behind mental illness
Discussions of mental health around the globe have become more pertinent in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Definition Please” brings the mental health discussion to the forefront and allows the South Asian diaspora to reflect on cultural values that may or may not support friends and family who struggle with a clinical illness. Day and Rajan discussed the importance of erasing the shame often associated with mental illness.
“People all over the world are lonely, isolated and having a tough time dealing with what feels like an apocalyptic situation. It’s important to communicate about mental illness without shame and judgment,” Day said. “It’s just like any other disease, and getting help or treatment should be accessible and easy for everyone no matter where you live or how much money you have.”
Rajan explained that his character, who deals with bipolar disorder, struggles with accepting his situation, as mental illness can be seen as an embarrassment, especially in Asian communities. Sonny, who comes home with hyperactive energy, is portrayed as a very loving and positive brother and son, whose actions since childhood have communicated the care he has for his family. But as Rajan explained, “He is also struggling with something so destructive. The reason it has become this destructive is because he has let it snowball, and he hasn’t spoken about it with his family.”
“It’s not something that people should be ashamed of,” Rajan said. “In Asian culture, if there’s something wrong with somebody, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s shameful. We can’t let our neighbors or uncles and aunties down the street know.’ It’s like, ‘Oh gosh, what would they say?’ We’re past that now. We have the emotional intelligence to have these conversations, and we should be honest with each other because if we don’t talk about this now, it’s only going to get worse.”
“Sujata tells these stories about communities that she has grown up in with her friends. They have a roof over their heads, and they’re getting good grades. There’s food on the table, but why are they depressed?” he added. “And sometimes… Well, they have an illness, and that has to be addressed. I hope this starts conversations and makes people feel not as afraid. I think it all starts with communication, and I hope that it starts a dialogue about mental health, especially in our communities.”
“Definition Please,” now obtained by Ava DuVernay’s Array, is available to stream on Netflix.