Actress Sujata Day On Writing Her “Brown Girl Story” In Directorial Feature Debut ‘Definition Please’

‘Definition Please’ poster

When it comes to changing a decades-old industry that has been stuck in it’s traditional (i.e, white, cis-gender, male) ways since the beginning, you can’t just change the existing system, you have to create a whole new landscape. In Hollywood specifically, the film industry is seeing some slow but much-needed shifts in the types of narratives we see on-screen, and the talent we are hearing more about behind the scenes.

The most powerful force for change has been storytelling from emerging voices and creators who have typically been excluded from mainstream films and TV series. And it’s no surprise that the majority of up-and-coming storytellers are women of color, LGBTQ folks, non-binary folks and BIPOC.

Enter actress Sujata Day, who is well and truly familiar with what it means to sidestep the traditional Hollywood gatekeepers, and successfully chart a path forward with her own projects and the stories SHE wants to tell. Initially starting her career in the corporate world, she eventually made her way to Hollywood from the East Coast and began appearing in small productions such as Issa Rae’s breakthrough web series ‘The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl’, playing Issa’s best friend CeeCee, and eventually appeared in the hit HBO series ‘Insecure’. Alongside her foray into acting, Sujata has been writing and developing various projects that have gotten the attention of a number of big networks. But seeing creators of color such as Issa, and her friend and director Justin Chon (‘Gook’, ‘Ms. Purple’) ascend the latter of filmmaking success by telling their own authentic stories inspired Sujata that it was time for her to tell her “Brown Girl Story” and make her own feature film.

‘Definition Please’ is Sujata’s feature film directorial debut and is the kind of story that not only gives voice and representation to the underrepresented South Asian-American community on screen, but also works to break down stereotypes and tropes that we see in Hollywood all too often.

Directing and starring as lead character Monica Chowdry, ‘Definition Please’ is a story about family, identity, expectations, mental health, culture and more.

When we meet Monica Chowdry in 2005, the eight-year-old is on top
of the world as champion of Scribbs National Spelling Bee. Fast-forward to present day: grown-up Monica is still living at home in Greensburg, Pennsylvania with her ailing mom Jaya (Anna Khaja), making a living tutoring a new crop of future overachievers while hesitating to make any big moves in her own life. Monica faces an unwelcome disruption in her mundane routine when her older brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) reappears from out of the blue. A sweet-natured, fitness-obsessed goofball, Sonny blithely refuses to address his bipolar disorder, and Monica is wary of embracing his presence lest they repeat past traumas. Sujata has crafted a directorial debut that pays loving homage to Bollywood fantasy while offering a refreshingly nuanced look at a complicated South Asian-American family.

We spoke with Sujata from her quarantine headquarters to get to know her as a filmmaker, a storyteller and what she hopes audiences will take away from watching ‘Definition Please’.

What made you want to become a filmmaker, and where did you start out? 

I was born and raised in Greensburg, PA, which is the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Once I hit middle school I started getting into plays and musicals, and at the same time I was also really good at math and science. I remember the first musical I was in, “Guys and Dolls”, and I was in the ensemble. And just that feeling of being on stage and my parents in the audience watching and laughing and having a great time, that was just a feeling that I never forgot. As I was applying to colleges, I went to Case Western and got my engineering degree, but at the same time I was still pursuing the arts. I also studied abroad in Sydney at the UNSW and it was there that I was getting into more plays.

After I graduated with my degree I got a job with a consulting firm called Accenture. They asked me where I wanted to work and I said Los Angeles, and they moved me out to LA. As I was working at the job I was taking acting classes, getting headshots, meeting agents, and doing all the hustle you need to do once you move to LA to pursue entertainment. I got laid off from Accenture, which was not a really big surprise. About 6-8 months later I booked 3 national commercials in a row and thats when I realized it was working.

A couple of years later I was on Twitter and met Issa Rae there. That was about 9 years ago now. Twitter was not a big deal at that time. Issa and I stated following each other. She tweeted out a few days later, “I’m looking for a mixed-looking girl to play my best friend on my web series” and I wrote back and I said “Hey I’m not mixed but here’s my picture and resume.” She said “come to the casting!” I went to her house and it was a great audition. She emailed me a couple of hours and said “ You got the part!” So we started shooting “Awkward Black Girl” about a month later.

We filmed at her dad’s doctors office in Inglewood. It was just a 20 minute scene in the hallway, then we were done. I wasn’t getting paid, we all just believed in the project. Then of course ‘Awkward Black Girl’ blew up, and here we are today. 

Sujata Day | Greggywawa Photography

When was the point where you decided, “I need to start making MY own content”?  

That was when I was on set with Issa. Me and the rest of the cast and crew were so inspired by what was going on around us. She was putting it on her credit cards. She was writing her Black girl story, and she would always say, “you’ve gotta write your brown girl story”. So then I just started jotting down ideas. The first scripts were obviously terrible but you just have to write more and more to get better.

Then I did my own short film in 2016 called “Cowboy and Indian” (it’s on Vimeo) and did the film festivals in 2017. That short film got bought by 2 different studios to be developed into a series so it was really fun to go through that. I did another web series called “Larry and Lucy” with one of my co-stars from ‘Awkward Black Girl’. Even though it didn’t go viral, it still was educational in terms of doing it, and I got a great manager through doing that series.

Something that I always tell creatives is, don’t always think that you’re going to go viral or think that THIS is gonna be the thing to break you and put you at the top of the list. Just continue to create and don’t stop. Always learn from the mistakes that you made in the past. I always tell people that ‘Awkward Black Girl’ is Issa’s third web series. You’ve never heard of the first two! So just continue to make things and have a lot of ideas to choose from. 

That’s such good advice, given we hear a lot about that “big break” in Hollywood. 

Or overnight success! There’s no such thing as an overnight success. 

‘Definition Please’ Production Still | Brooks Ludwick

Speaking of “writing your brown girl story”, let’s talk about ‘Definition Please’. There are so many similarities between you and lead character Monica and your personal life. Where did the story come from? 

So in 4th grade I won my class spelling bee, then I went to regionals in the first round and lost on the word “radish”. I spelled it with two “d’s” instead of one. It was pretty devastating. I came back to school and my friends were all clowning me for losing on such an easy word. After that experience I would watch the spelling bee on ESPN and I noticed that almost every year it was a South Asian-American kid winning the spelling bee. So I just kept that in the back of my head. Even when we were on set in 2019 filming, there were 8 winners and 7 of the 8 were South Asian-American.

I was going through the Upright Citizens Brigade improv program and I took the Sketch 101 writing class and we had to write sketches every single week. One of my ideas was “Where are they now? Spelling Bee winners”. If you look up the Spelling Bee winners on Google, they’re doing really great things. They’re working at NASA, world poker champions, designing robots. So I just thought it would be funny of one of them got to be a loser and didn’t reach the potential that she was supposed to reach. So that was the idea of my sketch.

Then in 2016 I got into a Sundance screenwriting lab and once you do any one of those labs at Sundance, you are automatically an alumni of the film festival. So in early 2017 I went to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time. My friend Justin Chon’s film ‘Gook’ was premiering there. I saw the film and I was blown away. After the screening I cornered him at his party and I asked “how did you do this? How did you make this happen?” He told me he got his friends and family to give him money and just figured it out on his own. And I was like, great, that’s what I’m going to do!

So then mid-2017 I started writing the feature film version of ‘Definition Please’, based on that small 4 page sketch idea that I had come up with at UCB. I came up with a first draft in 1 or 2 months, worked on the script throughout 2018 and kinda soft-pitched it to production companies. I got really great responses, but nobody wanted to make the film. Most of them said “this is a great script but it’s not for us”.

Then in 2019 I went back to Sundance Film Festival, this time with HBO, and Justin’s next film ‘Ms Purple’ was playing there. And I was like, “what am I doing with my time! Why haven’t I made my movie yet!” So that was when I decided to make my movie in June that year.

‘Definition Please’ Production Still | June Street Productions

What was the process of getting all the funding you needed? 

So after making the decision at Sundance 2019 in my head, I guess you could say fate or destiny intervened. I got an email from a studio that I had sold a show to. They told me they were going through a lot of upheaval an were going to give me my show’s rights back along with this huge check. And I was like, this is such weird timing! Then I thought, well I’m gonna use this check and be the first money into my movie.

I created/designed an investor lookbook so they could see what it was going to be. And along with the investor lookbook I sent the script, the character breakdown, and I would say “this is how much we need, this is how much you would get”. I got lawyers involved, they drew up all the investor contracts. Once I got home from Sundance in January, every single coffee, lunch, every single person that I met with, actor friends, filmmaker friends, I would say to them “hey do you wanna put money into my movie or do you know anyone that would be willing to?”

Most of my friends in LA, we’re all in the same boat financially. So some of them would say, “well I can’t, but my cousin who is an investment banker, or my other friend who is a dentist or doctor, they’d be interested”. So I would set up calls with these other people and get them on board. And it was a little bit easier to have folks put money into the movie after they knew that I had put my own money into the movie. 

Once you began writing the core characters of Monica, her brother and their mom, how did you decide to focus on topics such as mental health, family expectations and family dynamics within South Asian communities? 

It was all from the genesis of that idea that this girl won the Scripps National Spelling Bee and now she hasn’t lived up to her potential. It was all about answering “why?”. Why hasn’t she lived up to her potential? And the answer for me was because of her relationships with her family, with her mother and brother. Those relationships were all inspired by what I was surrounded by in Greensburg where I’m from.

I did go to a very white high school, but then there are 3 temples in Pittsburgh. So on the weekdays I was hanging out with my white friends and on the weekends I was hanging out with my Indian friends at the temple, at dance classes. I went to Hindu temple camp in the summer time.

I did notice that we had certain issues that we were dealing with that my white friends were not dealing with which was getting good grades, getting into Ivy League schools, and a lot of academic pressure. Some of my friends in the Indian community would run away from home, and their parents would be like “why would they run away!” Or some of them would be depressed or have anxiety. So I really wanted to tackle mental illness because I don’t feel like we talk about it enough especially in the South Asian community.

It is this “model minority” theme that pops up in the movie. I personally am a model minority: I went to engineering school, got my degree and decided to go into the arts. So I wanted to explore how a character juggles a success that she has had and how she sees herself. It’s kind of a double meaning with the title. Of course it is the question that spelling bee contestants ask when they’re on stage, but for Monica it’s about defining herself.

‘Definition Please’ Film Still | June Street Productions

Let’s talk about the power of representation on screen and behind the scenes. We don’t see enough Black and Brown people in Hollywood in general, but especially South Asian men and women directors. We’re starting to see a few more. Can you talk about making conscious decisions to make a majority cast that is people of color? 

Representation is really starting to happen in front of the camera which is great. But where it really needs to ramp up is the writers rooms. Who is writing this project? Who is directing it? Who is the Director of Photography? Who is the composer? Who are the producers? So for me that was really important to focus on in telling this story. This is a very American story that happens to have South Asian American faces as the lead characters, told from my authentic point of view, and brings in items that someone else wouldn’t necessarily think of like the Masala Lays chips, the thumbs up cola, even the havan puja ceremony for the father. Not have those things BE the focus of the movie, but just have them there because this just happens to be the life that they lead.

Even in the supporting characters, I was like, “yeah the doctor can be a hot Asian guy”, as well as the romantic lead. We were going back and forth on who we should cast because I didn’t really have a specific race in mind when casting that role, and we just landed on my friend Jake. He turned out to be perfect. And then even with the best friend character Krista, (actress) Lalaine happens to be half-Filipina.

I think when you put people of color and especially women of color behind the scenes, you see the representation in front of the camera too. We’re more willing to give people a shot. We had this amazing Black woman composer Amanda Jones, who started writing the songs when I sent her the script and we hadn’t even shot anything yet. She hired singers from Mumbai to sing the Hindi and Bangla songs. And she was just nominated for an Emmy last year. She’s worked with Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe.

It’s just good to hire people of color, women of color who maybe never got chances before, and since you are now in the position of power, it’s your turn to find those talented people because they’re out there, even though Hollywood keeps saying “Oh we can’t find them. Where are the women directors of color?”

How can creatives of color break down the traditional barriers to entry in Hollywood? Should every filmmaker aspire to have their film premiere at a prestigious film festival? 

That’s come up a lot because I just had a bunch of friends who found out they didn’t get into Sundance 2021. What I say to that is, when I did ‘Cowboy and Indian’, I submitted to all the big film festivals – Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca, TIFF, and didn’t get into any of the prestigious film festivals. But I did get into the Asian American film festivals across America. I got into female film festivals. I got into Bentonville, I got into LA Asian. I put $5500 of my own money into that short film. All the networks and studios that go to those prestigious film festivals, go to the Asian, Black, female film festivals as well. They all saw my film. That’s how I sold it twice. With that short film that I put $5500 towards, I’ve made over $100,000. 

You just have to find your own path. And whether its making a short and going to the other film festivals, or you put it up online or you go the ‘Awkward Black Girl’ Route, or you make it into a TikTok thing, or an IG video. There’s so many other ways to get seen now. Obviously its great to get into Sundance and TIFF. But in 2020 they all took fewer films because of COVID. And that’s not going to change any time soon. It’s finding the perfect audience for your film, and that audience may not be at Sundance. 

‘Definition Please’ Film Still | June Street Productions

What do you hope a general audience will take away from watching ‘Definition Please’, and more specifically South Asian Women?

The number one thing I’ve heard from South Asian folks is that it inspires them to write their story. And that’s the best thing I can get from my film because I’ve been inspired by so many people who have come before me – Issa Rae, Matthew Cherry, Tracey Oliver, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Mindy Kaling. So it would be great to inspire the next generation of folks because I want to see their story. Even if they live in Texas or Iowa or wherever, and they are inspired by my movie to make their own film then my job is done. 

White audiences have responded to the film, so have Black audiences, Asian audiences. They’ve said that what was really cool about my film was that, yes it was a film about an Indian American family, but the themes and issues that they’re dealing with are so universal and personal, so they saw themselves in these characters. I think that’s the best message we can spread right now especially since the country is so divided. We just want to see who we can be in these different faces. So it’s nice to realize that you’ve made something that is touching people who you didn’t necessarily think would be your demographic audience. 

What’s next for you?  

Quarantine has been really productive for me! I wrote my second feature, I wrote another pilot, I have a series in development at a studio, a show in development with another producer, and right now I’m working on my third feature. So I’m going to continue to put my stories out there! 

Get to know more about Sujata Day here, and keep an eye out for announcements about where you can watch ‘Definition Please’.

‘Definition Please’ Film Still | June Street Productions

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