At one point in “Definition, Please,” Monica (Sujata Day) rattles off some of the places she imagines she could’ve been as a Scripps National Bee Spelling Championship at the precocious age of eight, noting other winners had gone on to work for NASA or made millions with startups while she has stayed at home in Greensburg, Pennslyvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, tending to her mother Jaya (Anna Khaja) and eventually her older brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan), who returns from Los Angeles on the anniversary of their father’s untimely death. Although the film’s star, as well as writer/director, couldn’t have known it at the time in her own life, not winning a spelling bee might’ve been the best thing that ever happened to her.
“I won my fourth grade class spelling bee, but then I went to regionals and I lost in the first round on the word ‘radish,’ so I wouldn’t call myself a champion,” Day says now. “In my heart I was a champion [laughs], but I always remember that moment. And that’s how the script for ‘Definition, Please’ came to be.”
Getting one word wrong would eventually lead to getting them all right later, to go by Day’s directorial debut, with her time in competitive spelling serving as a jumping off point for a tender dramedy about the relative nature of success, particularly for those from immigrant communities. By any measure, Day has had plenty of it, parlaying her accomplishments as an actress, most notably as a series regular on “Insecure,” into a promising career behind the camera. Marshaling all the resources within her reach for a two-week shoot on her own terms,“Definition, Please” is distinguished by Day’s desire to look at rough edges rather than run away from them as Monica and Sonny contend with expectations of where they should be in their lives, not necessarily by their parents, but rather from society as a whole where their South Asian roots suggest work involving Ph.Ds, a particular difficulty for Sonny, who struggles with bipolar disorder.
Day finds rich irony in “Definition, Please” where its characters are concerned, telling the story of a young woman with a dictionary’s worth of terminology in her head, but having none to ideally describe herself or what her family’s experiencing in the wake of their patriarch’s death and in mixing allusions to both the Bollywood fare Monica’s mother enjoys so much and the American indie fare you suspect Monica grew up on, the writer/director finds a language of her own that beautifully expresses the experience. With the film screening for the first time this weekend in person at the Los Angeles Asian-Pacific Film Festival following its online world premiere last summer at the Bentonville Film Festival, Day and her co-star and co-producer Rajan spoke about their collaboration and how the writer/director made her cast and crew feel right at home quite literally.
How did this come about?
Sujata Day: In 2016, I did my first short film “Cowboy and Indian,” which I also wrote, produced, directed, and starred in and that was my practice run of, “Can I do this? Is it possible? Is it going to turn out terrible or awesome?” And that experience went really well. “Cowboy and Indian” went on to have a very successful festival run, and after that people kept asking me, “When are you going to do your next short?” And I said, “Short? I’m going to do a feature.” I was inspired by Justin Chon’s premiere of “Gook” at Sundance Film Festival. He gave me a lot of advice in terms of how to get your own film off the ground, and I had started writing “Definition, Please” in the summer of 2017 and I had the shooting version of the script early 2019, and that’s when I started putting the wheels into motion.
Ritesh, what got you excited about this?
Ritesh Rajan: Just being able to share the story with people. Obviously the experience of working with Sujata is a marvel. She’s very inspiring to be around and she was wearing so many hats. And now just for everyone to be able to sit down and watch what our team did and tell a story that I think is so important to the larger Asian community, showing a slice of life about an Indian-American family that doesn’t have to do with any crazy Bollywood tropes and what a new-generation American family is going through — they have problems too. Let’s not forget the model minority idea. This is what it means to be Indian-American in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, so to me, that’s amazing.
What drew you to film in Pittsburgh?
Sujata Day: This was in my hometown, Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I shot it in my parents’ house that I grew up in, and the beauty of making the film was the entire community got behind it. One of my favorite moments is when we were filming a scene around like 11 to 1 in the morning, and it was going to be a loud scene — it was a fight. And we called the Pittsburgh Film Office and said, “How do we get permits for this?” And they said, “Oh, you don’t need permits in Pennsylvania,” which was shocking to me because you definitely need permits in Los Angeles and New York. So I wrote a handwritten note to eight of the neighbors that would be within earshot of the scene, and I taped it to the front door and said, “This is the number to call if you have any issues with this. We’re filming from these hours at night. It might get a little loud. We apologize.” And my producer got a couple phone calls and they were not complaints. They were asking how they could be in the film. [laughs] While we were shooting the scene, we had neighbors come out with lawn chairs, cracking open a bottle of beer, watching it.
Ritesh Rajan: It was a full-blown tailgate. I was running around in my underwear and everyone is like, “All right!” It was a fun day. Because they had the massive bounce for the light because it was a night shoot, everyone was just posted up. It was a beautiful summer night for them.
And [in general] I loved being able to have tangible inspiration, so the fact that we were able to shoot [in Sujata’s family’s house] because my character is her brother, so he grew up in the same house and to being able to just physically experience that and to be surrounded by her family photos and pull on that specificity and that energy was really, really powerful for me. The set design was set design, but it was living and breathing as a home for a family that was not for the movie and that was a great tool just to push my performance further.
Sujata, when you’re an actress yourself, is there anything that you wanted to do for your cast that you might’ve wanted yourself from a director?
Sujata Day: I like to just be there in the moment as an actor and be in the scene, so in terms of directing, I tried to channel my favorite directors who were both women of color. Debbie Allen and Tina Mabry worked on “Insecure,” and something that was amazing about them is not only were they confident — knew what they wanted, knew the shots, were very experienced — they were very nurturing to the cast and the crew and they made each of us feel like we were very important, so I tried to channel that.
Ritesh Rajan: Sujata’s amazing. I worked on a lot of projects from small to big and this is one of my favorite experiences, just being able to hang out with the cast and crew and to be able to tell a story about our people with no excuses. We don’t have to sit there and explain everything to every single audience member that may or may not get this cultural reference. It’s not about that. It’s just about making an honest, emotional connect with our audience, and the people that happen to know more about the culture, they will enjoy it even more. We hope that this sort of spikes people’s curiosity to see what it really means to be Indian-American or Asian-American.
It also is quite sensitive in terms of dealing with mental illness – was that difficult to portray, Ritesh?
Ritesh Rajan: Yeah, both my parents are doctors, and lots of my aunts and uncles and friends from NYU are doctors, so I had a lot of resources to pull from. I spoke to [Sujata] about her experiences, dealing with the subject matter and I just really wanted to portray the character with the sense of authenticity and realism because we didn’t want to sensationalize. We wanted to really focus on what is the conflict here, what causes it, and why? And I think if we just focus on that people will emotionally connect to it because it’s loaded. Yes, the character is dealing with mental health, but what kind of baggage does that create for the siblings? Or his relationship with his mom or for the sister with the mother because the mother is ignoring it. Then how did the father play into it? You see all of these pieces and [the family] all dealing with their demons in their own ways coming together.
Sujata, it must be exciting to see those conversations starting even in spite of the film hitting the festival circuit in the midst of a pandemic. What’s it been like to start bringing this out into the world?
Sujata Day: Obviously, we had to pivot to the virtual film festivals after COVID and that has been frustrating in a way, because honestly I would’ve loved to travel to these film festivals and watch the film along with an audience, but we made it work and we’ve wanted to do it as safely as possible. I’m just really excited to watch it in the theater with an audience. That’s going to be really fun and a new experience for me [here at LA Asian-Pacific Film Festival].
Ritesh Rajan: We had a lot of fun. We were very lucky to be able to have the team that we have, and it’s been a very educational, inspirational, and eye-opening experience for both of us just trying to get the movie ready.
Making your first feature is such a huge accomplish, but is it what you thought it would be? Was it different?
Sujata Day: It was better than I thought it would be. It was amazing. I think every filmmaker goes into shooting a film with an idea of what they’re going to do and it never turns out that way, and we had a lot of happy surprises that came to fruition. Even in the making of the film, one of my favorite experiences was I got to do sound design at Skywalker Ranch right around San Francisco. For the final sound design, I was sitting in George Lucas’ seat in The Stag Theater, just looking around and being amazed by where I was.