"Insecure" star Sujata Day redefines South Asian stereotypes in spelling bee movie

The actress spoke to Salon about her directorial feature debut, "Definition Please," making the festival rounds

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 11, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Definition Please (June Street Productions)
Definition Please (June Street Productions)

Spike Lee's 1989 hit "Do the Right Thing" did it for me. Beyond just seeing Black people in a film, Lee created world that captured our mannerisms, language and culture in a way that 7-year-old me had never seen in a movie before. "Do the Right Thing" made me and a whole generation of artists come to feel like we mattered, and "Awkward Black Girl" and "Insecure" star Sujata Day is positioning herself to do the same with her feature film debut "Definition Please."  

Written, produced, directed by and starring Day, "Definition Please" follows Monica Chowdry (Day), a National Spelling Bee champ who hasn't really accomplished much in life as she deals with a sick mom and mentally ill, but fun and energetic brother as they all walk the line between South Asian and American culture, looking for meaning. 

I recently got a chance to talk with Day about the film, which recently showed at the Bentonville Film Festival. Read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about the Day's transition from acting to producing and directing and the advice she has on being productive during the COVID-19 quarantine.    

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I thought your film was really funny and then it just got real, really really fast. And for me, that's how life is, you know, things are going well, and then you get hit with a ton of bricks. 

Could you talk about what it feels like dealing with such heavy content and where the ideas came from? 

Yeah, I'll take you all the way back. I think I I'll take you back to fourth grade, where I won my class spelling bee. And you think that's a really big deal, but it's actually not because there were only 10 people in my grade. So, it wasn't that crazy that I won. But then I went to regionals, which was really stressful. And I went up in the first round, and I spelled "radish" wrong. I spelled it with two D's instead of one.

Ten people in your entire grade? That's a really small school!

That's a small school. I went to a little private Catholic school. So, I went to the regionals and I lost on the word "radish" and I came back to school, and all my friends were clowning me for losing on such an easy word. And honestly, I was like, you know what, I deserve this clowning because it is an easy word. I didn't get out on some crazy five-syllable word. Ever since then, I started getting really into the spelling bees that were on ESPN every year. And I was always really happy to see South Asian Americans winning these spelling bees. Last year while we were on set filming, there were eight winners and seven of the eight winners were Indian American. 

And so that idea stuck with me for a while and in 2015, I was in a UCB improv sketch writing class. And I decided to have one of the themes of my sketches be a "Where are they now?" for spelling bee winners. If you Google spelling bee winners, you always see that they're doing really amazing stuff with their triple PhDs, working at NASA, or they're killing it on the professional Poker Tour. And the question that I answered in my sketch was, well, what if one of these amazing 10-year-old spellers grew up to be a loser and just lived at home and didn't achieve anything in their life? So that was my four-page comedic sketch. And then a couple years later I went to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time, and my friend Justin's film was playing there. I thought it was amazing and asked him, "How did it come to fruition?" 

I loved the character, who plays Monica's roller coaster of a relationship with her brother Sonny. Because he's very layered character with a whole lot of different things going on. But something that we don't see in comedy or we don't see it films enough is pyramid schemes and how they prey on people with their Platinum level, "member of the month" BS.  I thought that was cool, how you shed light on the monster of fraud, was that based on a personal experience? 

So, I feel like living in L.A., I've had friends and colleagues and just people that I've come in contact with that will invite me to like a makeup party or a skincare party or try this acai juice from Brazil. And I'd be like, what do I have to do? I'll try it but I don't want to like buy anything extra or I already use, you know, facewash and I don't need it. And so, I'm seeing that a lot. And for a place like L.A. where everyone kind of has like six different side hustles, I thought that was a nice characteristic to give to Sonny, since he does live in L.A. and works at a gym. I figured he would have a couple different side hustles. And that was based on a couple friends of mine that I've seen. 

Was it difficult making the leap from being in front of the camera to actually directing, writing, and producing a feature? Producing sounds like a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of stress. Actors, you know, get to study their lines, do their parts and go home, but you got to tap into the business side as a producer ,and I imagine it's a lot to handle. 

So, I will say I had a little bit of tiny practice in 2016, when I made my first short and I also wrote it, produced it, directed it and starred in it. I did all of this three years ago on a much smaller level. And after I did my short everyone asked me when was I going to make another, because they really liked what I had created. And I said, "Nah, I'm ready to make a feature," so I started writing that. 

Makes sense, you got to level up. 

I made sure when I really focused on the writing and rewriting, over and over –– getting notes from trusted friends and writer friends and colleagues. So, when it was time to produce, I could take my writer hat off and go into full producer mode. Raising money for the movie, and that was just a mode that I was stuck in, making calls, having meetings, getting money, doing what needed to be done to get the film made. Once all of that was done, I was able to do some storyboards and move all of that energy to directing. 

I've got to start putting the cast and crew together. And that's what I'll say. I'll say that it was very much me being over-prepared for every single aspect of the filmmaking, making sure that I knew my lines going into the day. And just making sure that the environment on the set day was really positive and open to the actors and everyone felt good. And we were all doing this for fun. We were all stuck in the middle of Pennsylvania. A lot of my cast and crew was coming out of L.A. and other big cities. 

What do you feel like the most difficult part was, in regards to running the whole show and being in charge of the production? 

I think the most difficult part was raising the money. Moving forward, I would hope that I don't have to do that anymore and that someone else can help me with that aspect of it. But every other part was so fulfilling, and creative and amazing. And I made sure that I had an amazing team surrounding me because of course, it takes a village. I would have rehearsals before we left L.A. to go prep in Pennsylvania, and I would have rehearsals  with actors coming to my apartment, and we would just be reading the scripts in my living room. And when Ritesh Rajan came over to us to play Sonny, it was just a cold read. That first day he came over and he was sitting on my couch, and he just starts like bawling. And he's so like 110% into scenes. And I'm sitting there like, "Oh s**t," like, I gotta live up to it, I got to get up to this level in terms of acting. So, I made sure that everyone around me was actually better than me at their job. I had to get up to all their levels, so that I could compete and, and not be embarrassed about what I was doing.

When you do that work as a writer, and you do that work as a director, and then you find that kind of talent. It seems like, it becomes easier to get other people to buy into your dream. So, when you're trying to fundraise it gives you more confidence to be able to make sure that you get everything you need to get the project done.

Yeah, that was a really cool part about it even towards the end when I needed some extra money. I actually just tweeted about that this morning, I have a blerd bunch that I hang out with every Sunday. And before quarantine, we were actually brunching every single Sunday in person. And it's just a group of Black and brown nerds that get together and we don't really talk about the business. We just talk about video games, comic books and movies. And they really came through when I was like, "Oh, I don't know if I'm going to be able to have the funds to finish this movie." And they just came through and got the funds together. 

Nerds tend to have disposable income. They get made fun of and grow up to be the person who says, "You need $200,000? Okay, I got you. Go have a good day!" 

Yeah! So, it was definitely a family/friend endeavor of getting the thing made. And it was all a really positive process. Like, I hope that other first-time filmmakers have the kind of experience that I had, which was so fulfilling every step of the way.

I felt like, representation was a really important part of the film, too. You don't, you know, growing up, I imagine that you don't see a whole lot of films with the South Asian experience, or South Asian in America experience and where those two cultures meet and collide. So, what did that mean to you?

I think that was a really big thing for me, because I think one of the first times I ever saw myself in a movie was "Bend it Like Beckham." And when I saw that movie, I was like, "Oh my gosh, that's a girl that has the same kind of problems that I do," and I had never felt that way, really about a film. 

I just wanted to create something that I wanted to see, you know, just like Issa Rae creating "Awkward Black Girl." She just wanted to create something that she wanted to see and hadn't seen before. So, for me, it was really important because I watched all these indie movies and I love them so much. And I'm always like checking out what's at Sundance. I see all these really cool like family sibling drama, but they're always about white people. And I'm like, "Wait, but POC go through the similar issues like this."  I really wanted to focus on a South Asian American family, but also telling a very American story, which you're right, this was set in America, and you don't see a lot of South Asian American films that are set in America that aren't filled with stereotypes and things that when I'm watching it, I'm like, "Wait, that person would never do that!" It was nice to bring authenticity to the screen and put it out there.

Normally when you see an Asian family, a South Asian family, a lot of times you see a kid going to school to be a doctor, a scientist, you have to be some kind of mathematical genius. And that's it. It's not the worse stereotype; however, sometimes there's no room for comedy and no room for the parts of American culture that makes it into the family and no space for all of the human things that that we that we tend to appreciate. That's why I loved your film so much, you peeled back those layers. You feel like Hollywood is moving into a direction where it's going to be like more open to tell those stories in a more authentic way? 

I hope that Hollywood is moving in the right direction. I think there's a lot of TV and film that is inspiring right now like Michaela Coel's "I May Destroy You," and Issa Rae's "Insecure" –– and there are so many creators that are getting the chance to tell these stories and I hope that studios continue to put support and backing into these really specific special stories. I'm just a little bit weary because I feel like whenever there's a really successful movie like a "Crazy Rich Asians," or "Girls Trip," or "Get Out," Hollywood is so surprised by how much money these movies make and acts like no, there are audiences out there wanting to see POC in films. 

I also think the layer of mental illness was needed and done well. Based on my social context, therapy isn't something that we just didn't do.  Now people are starting to do things to try to, you know, understand that these are real serious issues and illnesses. Your mom in the film didn't even want to go to hospitals and that's just like another layer. I think that was done really well too. Could you talk about mental illness or the dislike and distrust of Western medicine in general?

Yeah, I think that's that was really important subject for me to discuss because I grew up in a very white suburb of Pennsylvania, but I was lucky to have a very large Indian community to hang out with on the weekends. So, I'd be going in the temple on Sundays and to Hindu camp in the summertime. I noticed that there was a difference between my white friends and my Indian friends in terms of dealing with problems around mental illness. Whereas my white friends would just be able to go to their parents and be like, "Ah, I want to kill myself," and then the mom would be like, "Oh my gosh, we got to like, get you into therapy! What do you need?" And so, for my Indian friends, I noticed that they would either just like run away from home, and then the parents would be like, "Why did you run away? You know, we gave him everything he needed, he gets food, he, he gets good grades, what is the problem?" And we're just sitting there being like, "Yo, he's depressed," or "He's stressed out from all of his AP classes," or "He did terrible on his SAT's and he thinks that you're gonna punish him. "

So, I saw that difference. And I saw how, within POC communities, we just never talk about feelings and emotions. And if we're stressed out or have mental problems, it's just not something that we bring up and with my parents who are immigrants; there's that other added layer of them sacrificing so much to come over here. So, all of our problems seem tiny compared to my parents' issues when they first came to America. That was something that I really wanted to focus on and delve into it on a real authentic level in terms of I know people with mental illness, some extended members of my family deal with mental illness. I wanted to look at it from a point of view that was not only affecting the person itself, who has the mental illness, but all the people around him.

Yeah, I though you did that really well. It's difficult to try to cross that line between comedy and real issues. What are some of the things that that you want viewers to walk away with after seeing the film?

Well, especially now since we're all in quarantine, and we're worried about COVID. I would love for people to watch this movie and come away with a sense of empathy. And maybe you're not the same culture that I am, or you're not the same color that I am. But you see this film about people with real human problems, and universal issues that we're all dealing with. I hope that audiences walk away saying, "Hey, I know someone like that," or "I never thought that about an Indian American person." Because that's something that I also go through. So, I would love for people to come away with a sense of empathy.

So where are we going to see the film or as anything going on as far as distribution?

We are talking to a couple of dream buyers right now, and I'm really excited. But also started our festival circuit, which I love. I did film festivals with my short film in 2017. And it was just so much fun. I think the only the only disappointing thing about festivals this year is obviously it's all virtual. So, we can't travel to these really cool towns in the middle of nowhere to watch our film with an audience. 

I know you're excited. What's next for you?

Well, I've been really productive during quarantine. So, I wrote a pilot and I also wrote my second feature, and I have been sending the feature out to different actors that I'd like to attach and that feature is an absurd comedy, which is very different from "Definition Please." I'm excited I've been working on a lot of comedy, it allows me to escape from what's happening in the real world and it's been mentally healthy for me to do that.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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