Sujata Day has always been fascinated by spelling bees. In fourth grade, she won her class spelling bee, only to lose in the first round of the regionals. “I misspelt radish,” she recalls. “I spelt it with two Ds.” Despite the experience, Day’s attraction to spelling bees continued. She would watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN and feel a sense of pride as she saw an Indian American claim the trophy year after year. Many years later, while attending a writing class at University of California, Berkeley, in 2015, Day thought of a film around a spelling bee winner. And that’s when “Definition Please” was born.
Day stars in the film she wrote, produced and directed. “Definition Please” recently premiered at the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas. The film follows Monica Chowdhary (Day), a National Spelling Bee champ who hasn’t really accomplished much in life as she deals with a sick mom and mentally ill brother. Together they redefine themselves as they walk the line between their American and Indian cultures.
There is no confirmed release date of the film, and it is currently doing the festival rounds. The film stars Ritesh Rajan, Jake Choi, Anna Khaja, Parvesh Cheena, Sonal Shah, Tim Chiou, Kunal Dudheker, Meera Simhan and Maya Kapoor. “We are talking to a couple of dream buyers right now, and I’m really excited“ Day says about the film’s release in theaters.
Although it is not autobiographical, Day say her directorial debut is loosely based on her relationship with her family and friends, and growing up Indian American in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
In 2017, she wrote, produced, directed and starred in “Cowboy and Indian,” which is currently being developed as a television series. She has an impressive acting portfolio as well. She is known for her role as CeCe in Issa Rae’s “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” which was adapted into “Insecure” for HBO.
She was recently a guest star on Netflix’s “I Think You Should Leave” with Tim Robinson. She also appeared in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Life in Pieces.” She was a narrative features juror for the prestigious Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in 2018 and made the 2018 list for NBC Asian America Presents: A to Z.
In an interview with American Kahani, Day spoke about her fascination for spelling bees, her transition into directing, about redefining and reevaluating stereotypes and representation in Hollywood.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
How did the idea for “Definition Please” come along?
I was introduced to a class spelling bee in fourth grade, where I won first place. But I lost in the first round of the regionals. I misspelt radish. I spelt it with two Ds instead of one. Ever since then, I started getting really into the spelling bees and watching them every year on ESPN. And I was always really happy to see Indian 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. So the spelling bee idea was always on my mind. So in 2015, I was in a UCB (University of California, Berkeley) 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: 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? 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 that’s when I began to work on the feature film version of “Definition Please.”
What does the title “Definition Please” signify?
I always like to use titles that have a double meaning (laughs). As you know, “definition please” is one of those questions that a speller asks when they want more time to figure out how to spell the word in their brain, along with, others questions like “language of origin,” and, “Can you repeat the word?” The second meaning for that is, “Who or what defines us?” For Monica, it is about who she defines herself as. What do others see her as. The other issue is the “model minority” myth that almost every South Asian American kid grows up with. Perfect grades, perfect SAT scores, perfect GPA, music, dance, sports – the works. And the stress of it all, it manifests in so many ways, and affects people’s mental health. In the film, Monica’s brother Sonny as untreated bipolar disorder symptoms.
In the film, you are shattering stereotypes associated with the South Asian American communities — whether it’s Monica who choses an unconventional career path, or her brother, Sonny, who is struggling with mental health issues.
Both of these angles were deliberate. 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. I was connected to both cultures, and while there was an intense amount of pressure in both cultures, the way they handled them was different. So, I saw that difference. And I saw how, within our South Asian American communities, we just never talk about feelings and emotions. So 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. It was also important to bring these issues up in the open, to de-stigmatize them, and talk about them. And for that I wanted to tell an American story which has a South Asian family at the helm. I also want to give a shout out to Kumail Nanjiani, Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj, and others, who opened the doors to the next generation of filmmakers like me so we can tell our stories. It is also easy now to reach a global audience and it’s all the more important to tell diverse stories.
How was it transitioning from a writer, to a producer, and an actor to a director? What was the toughest part of making the film?
I had a little bit of tiny practice in 2016, when I made my first short “Cowboy and Indian,” which I wrote, produced, directed and starred in it, although on a much smaller level. With “Definition Please,” I first made sure when I really focused on the writing and rewriting, getting notes from trusted 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. Once all of that was done, I was able to do some storyboards and move all of that energy to directing, and making sure that the environment on the set day was really positive and open to the actors and everyone felt good. 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.
What is it that you want the audience to takeaway from “Definition Please?”
Especially now since we’re all in quarantine, isolated from friends and family, 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.
Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.