Writer, actress Sujata Day on her new film and telling Bengali American stories

What is the definition of success and where does it intersect with happiness? More importantly, what do those words mean when the aspirations you have as a child don’t end up working out when you’re an adult? Sujata Day tackles these questions in her directorial debut “Definition, Please,” a sincere and authentic indie that she wrote and starred in.

The film tells the story of Monica Chowdry (Day), a former National Spelling Bee champ in her mid-20s who still lives in her childhood home. She works as a children’s tutor and spelling bee coach in suburban Pennsylvania, all while caring for Jaya (Anna Khaja), her terminally ill mother. 

Though Monica isn’t quite happy, she quietly accepts her lot in life until Jaya invites Sonny (a luminous Ritesh Rajan, “Russian Doll”), her charismatic and unpredictable older brother, to come home for the anniversary of their father’s death. Sonny’s arrival immediately brings chaos back into Monica’s life. While it seems at first to be nothing more than regular sibling rivalry, it’s revealed that Sonny has untreated bipolar disorder. 

Best known for her roles in Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl” and “Insecure,” Day wrote a story that deftly portrays the unraveling of the already fragile family dynamic.

Compelling, heartfelt, and surprisingly humorous, the details of every frame make it clear that “Definition, Please” is a small budget film with a lot of love. More importantly, it’s imbued with the kind of cultural specificity and attention to detail that made the author — a fellow Indian American from a Bengali background — feel seen on screen in a way never seen before.

Anna Khaja, who plays the terminally ill Jaya in “Definition, Please,” in a behind-the-scene shot. 
(Photo Credit: June Street Productions)

Cold Tea Collective sat down with Day to talk about developing an unconventional but authentic Bengali American story, starting conversations with Asian American communities about mental health, and her advice for other Asian American creatives who want to tell their own stories.

There are so many little visual details that make this film not just Indian American, but specifically Bengali. What was your process with your production designer and art director to make sure all those details were included?  

I grew up with Gujarati friends and Punjabi friends and South Indian friends so I really strove to make it super Bengali American from the script stage. And so a lot of the details that you see on screen — that are art directed or production designed — were actually written into the script.

Part of why and how I think it feels really Bengali is [also] because that’s my parents’ house. Kaitlin McHugh, who is my production designer, is a middle school friend of mine from Greensburg where we shot the film, and she came in and she was already familiar with my parents, and the town we all grew up in. So it wasn’t difficult to convey to her what I wanted the film, especially the family’s house, to look like. 

A lot of that stuff, it would just be funny, because Kaitlin would set the house, and then my mom would secretly go through and start cleaning, and then Kaitlin would be like, “No, no, no, we want to make it look like it’s lived in. You don’t have to clean anything! Don’t worry about it!” 

A behind the scenes shot on location in Pennsylvania. The film was shot on location in Day’s childhood home. (Photo Credit: Kaitlin McHugh)

So it was pretty adorable how my mom just tried to keep the house clean and was like moving statues around or moving pictures around. 

What’s the story behind Monica’s daknam of Booney? 

That is something my brother [calls me] in real life — I believe it came out of bon, you know, little sister — and then he just started calling me Booney and then it stuck. 

I noticed right off the bat that there was a musical track in Bangla and saw in the credits that you worked with a lot of musicians. What was the process of bringing all the musicians together and creating a specifically Bengali soundscape for the film?

So I want to give 100 percent credit to Amanda Jones, who was my composer. I met her at Sundance Film Festival, and when I was in pre-production for the film, I thought of her, and I definitely slid into her DMs, and I asked her if she would be interested in composing for the film. She read the script and she said, “Of course, yes!” 

She knew what was involved, she’s a Black woman who’s incredible and has worked on Ava Duvernay’s projects, Issa Rae’s projects, Lena Waithe’s projects, and she just came on board and totally got it.

We wrote a lot of the lyrics together because she would come back with something in Hindi or Bengali, and I would help finesse the Bengali lyrics and my parents would help finesse the Hindi lyrics. Then I would give her [existing] songs that would inspire the songs. 

Sujata Day on set during production of “Definition, Please.” Day wrote, starred in and directed the film. (Photo Credit: Maximilian Petrunyak)

I really wanted a lot of original music, but I gave her Bollywood songs or Bengali songs to inspire the composition of it. And she just would come back to me within a day or two, and be like, “What does this sound like to you?” and I would be like “This is perfect!” 

Something that’s really sweet is that my parents love the music in the film. They’re pretty judgmental of Bengali songs in general so it was really nice that they loved that one main theme song that flows throughout the entire movie, but that was such a fun process in terms of creating the songs with Amanda and she really understood the landscape of Indian music in general so it was really nice working with her and collaborating on that.

I would definitely say we’re snobs in terms of our music, art and poetry, and I’m proud of that — I want to do right by all the great Bengalis that came before me in terms of their artistic endeavors.

And just as you were really thoughtful about the musical process, there was equal thoughtfulness to the mental health storyline and the individual struggles for each character. As you worked through the screenplay, how did you flesh out those details and have it all come together?

It all began with the simple premise of a young adult who achieved success early on in life, by winning her grade school spelling bee, and going on to win the Nationals and then recognizing that she’s not successful in terms of what gets written on paper. And how I broke out the story from that point was just to say, “Okay, why is she not successful? There’s got to be reasons. “

I decided that it was something to do with her family. Something that they would have kept secret from the rest of the community. That’s when I looked around at my own [community and experiences]. I grew up with a lot of Indian American friends in the Pittsburgh area, and I noticed …there was a lot of mental illness that would go unchecked.

We had kids running away from home and their parents saying, “Why would [he] run away? We gave him everything, he has food, he has clothes.” They didn’t recognize that he was taking AP classes and was under a lot of pressure and having to take the SATs three or four times.

Sonny, played by Ritesh Rajan, has an undiagnosed bipolar that becomes a driving force for chaos, change and reflection throughout the film. (Photo Credit: June Street Productions)

I wanted to leave [those stories] into “Definition, Please,” because I felt like it hadn’t really been done before in terms of Indian American culture and making it more real and accessible to everyone who may have experienced something like this.

Not only does it affect Sonny in the film, I also wanted to show how it affected the people who loved him.

Since some of the inspiration came from seeing mental illness unchecked in your own community. What’s been the reaction and impact in your community about these themes? 

What’s really beautiful is that more people are open to talking about it in general. They watch the film, and they say, “Oh wow. Yes, that’s what was going on. We just didn’t have a way to communicate that in words.”  

I believe our generation is more open to talking about things like this and taking it to their parents and saying, “Hey, this is what’s happening, I’m depressed. I’m having these mood swings. I’m anxious.” They’re not afraid to talk to their parents anymore about it, which is really nice. The communication that I wanted (this film) to ignite is happening across the board.

Definition, Please” started out as a sketch, that turned into a much larger story that reflected your own experiences growing up in Pittsburgh. Are you interested in revisiting that same setting for your future projects?

Everything I write is set in Greensburg. I’m obsessed with my hometown in a way that my friends from back home don’t understand. I just really love Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

I had an amazing childhood growing up there, where you know, you were riding around on your bikes all day and didn’t have to check in with your parents until the sun came down.Then you came home and had dinner and you were just hanging out with your neighborhood friends and it was really lovely. 

I’m from a very white suburb, but then there are three temples in that area where we were hanging out with my Indian American friends on the weekends. We would go to numerous graduations, anniversaries and birthday parties and temple events.I really feel like I had the best of all the worlds in terms of my childhood and I love to reflect that in my scripts, and my projects.

I love going back home to just relax and chill and hang out with my parents, I always tell my parents don’t ever sell this house. I want to keep coming back to visit. I feel comfortable here, I don’t feel out of place here, this is my home and I feel welcome and I really love that.

As an Asian American creative myself, it was super gratifying to see the full spectrum of what Asian American characters can look like outside of stereotypes. What’s your process for developing well rounded characters? 

I am very inspired by real life, whether my own life or my friends’ lives. I know how we act and how we think and all the emotions we go through, and I don’t necessarily see that reflected in the media. And there’s a certain kind of shame that usually keeps creeping up in movies and film and I just knew what I wanted to say, with my voice and my film. 

To that end, what advice do you have for other Asian American creatives who also want to tell stories about their own communities?

What I would say to Asian American creators coming up is to stay authentic to yourself. What is your particular experience? I write from my experience growing up in Greensburg as a first generation Indian American. What is your experience? Where are you from? 

I want to see that story coming out of Michigan or Nebraska or Florida or any other country in the world and it’s always going to be different from another person’s experience, so bring yourself to the work and don’t try to separate yourself and your experiences from what you’re writing.

Members of the production crew behind-the-scenes of the film. (June Street Productions)

Final question for you — so obviously, mental health, happiness, definitions of success, those are all key themes in “Definition, Please.” What other themes are you interested in as a storyteller and planning to center in your upcoming projects? 

I’m not really trying to keep myself in a box in terms of projects and themes. I’m really open to anything that inspires me. 

I don’t like to say I’m only going to do this one thing looking forward. I really am inspired by anything and everything, and whenever that inspiration hits, I like to write it down and jot it down right away. I have a whole folder of ideas in my notes app that I am always thinking of, especially when I wake up in the morning, like “Oh, what if this film was like this instead? And then we put an Indian American at the center of it.” 

I will say that I’m always thinking about Indian American women as lead characters of my stories, so I will continue to make stories about us.

“Definition, Please” will be shown next at Bentonville Film Festival Movie Mondays on May 17.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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