One of the most special parts of indie film Definition Please is that it was filmed at director-actor-producer Sujata Day’s childhood home. The inherent comfort is evident in the way lead character Monica (Sujata), her brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) and their mother Jaya (Anna Khaja) lounge about, and navigate the familiar space.
The comedy-drama follows 20-something Monica Chowdry who, during her childhood won the Scripps National Spelling Bee and catapulted to local fame, starring in lucrative advertisements and being recognised at her local grocer’s. Many would have assumed Monica (whose younger version is portrayed by Esha Chundru) would be making headlines well into her 20s but expectation does not always meet reality. Between caring for her unwell mother, dealing with an unpredictable brother, and holed up in her childhood treehouse, Monica faces a great deal of uncertainty in terms of career, relationships and self-image.
While many of us have, at some point, felt directionless, we haven’t necessarily seen an uncensored and on-screen depiction of this in a south Asian context. Perhaps this, and the treatment of other themes in Definition Please , is why it just won the Narrative Award at San Francisco’s Center for Asian American Media Fest 2020 .
Growing up brown
Tell this to Sujata, and she harks back to her own days growing up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, “The Indian-American kids in my community were always pushed to do their best: get into Ivy League schools, take AP classes, become doctors, and lawyers,” she says over a video call from Los Angeles, “When we reached 9th or 10th grade, one of our friends ran away from home. We saw the stress and pressure he was under; there were many signs of mental illness in our community that weren’t talked about.”
Like Monica, Sujata too won a spelling bee and went to the regionals. However, she recalls laughingly, she lost out on an easy word: ‘radish’, for which she was teased relentlessly. “Almost every year, a South Asian-American kid would win that competition,” before adding with a playful eye-roll, “It was amazing that that was where we excelled!”
In her time at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, where she pursued Engineering, she saw pressures amounting to suicide in many other students. She later transitioned to film, and during a sketch-writing class at University of California, Berkeley, she wrote a four-page sketch Where Are They Now: Spelling Bee Winners , exploring the idea of a past winner “growing up to be a loser”. It would be a project that would stay with her for a long time.
Sujata later became a Sundance alum after participating in a writing lab, and at the 2017 festival, she was entranced by friend and fellow filmmaker Justin Chon’s Gook . She learnt that Justin had scraped together whatever money he had and his friends for the project, which was part of the motivation she needed.
All of this would go on to become strong influences for Definition Please , in which Sujata wanted to “shine a light on the pressures placed on the children of immigrants, and how they need to do better than their parents.”
A team effort
To make this a reality, Sujata roped in Anna Khaja ( Yes Man ), Ritesh Rajan ( The Jungle Book ) and Lalaine ( Lizzie McGuire ) to play Monica’s closest confidantes, with realistic twists.
Sujata shares that Krista, played by Lalaine, is an amalgam of two of her own real-life best friends. “I’ve always always had such great female friendships in my life, and with this film, it was such a labour of love in terms of my childhood friends who were actually a part of this film. Kaitlin McHugh is is production designer. I’d also gone to middle school and high school with Rachel Vallozzi, the costume designer. I wanted the film to, therefore, portray strong female friendships in a strong, grounded way.”
Instead of perpetrating the stereotypical pressure-cooker mother, Jaya was written as loving, and comically stern with doses of dark humour. “Anna, who has a theatre background, brought so much surprise and authenticity to the role,” Sujata says, “and we had a great collaborative experience where a lot of questions were asked openly. She wanted to understand Jaya on an intimate level.”
Definition Please also touches upon the under-discussed intimacy between south Asian women. Characters Jaya and Monica, do have their contentious moments as do most mother-and-daughter duos. But there is also the very real deep love they have for each other, which Sujata did not want to censor. She recalls a special scene where Jaya cuddles her grown daughter in bed. It’s a quiet scene, but the kind that speaks emotional volumes. This became one of Sujata’s favourite scenes to do because of the connection she felt with Anna, and the characters’ connections too.
Deciding to use Sujata’s own childhood home in Greensburg was a no-brainer for production designer Kaitlin McHugh and for Sujata even when she was writing Definition Please . The filmmaker recalls with a fond smile how they had her parents stay at a hotel during production in 2019, because “We just took over their house. But when they came back, they saw what kind of production it was and they understood why they had to go. And then, Kaitlin offered up her treehouse for the film, too.”
Saving the best for last, Monica’s relationship with Sonny as a brother-sister duo is one to watch. Both are re-entering a phase of reconciliation — vacillations between discomfort, moments of love, and wariness — as Sonny struggles with bipolar disorder and Monica with anxiety and depression. Sujata and Ritesh — whom she affectionately nicknames ‘Tesh’ —became fast friends a couple of years ago, having realised they both had auditioned for the live-action Aladdin. Later, for a live show they sang a parody of ‘A Whole New World’ instead called ‘A Diverse Film’, but with the same melody. “We worked together really well then, so when I was writing Sonny, I knew I wanted Ritesh to play him,” she asserts, before cheekily adding, “I will give myself the credit that I hired an awesome cast!”
Mental illness narratives
Ritesh, who had never played a character like Sonny before, was all in. “For one of the early rehearsals, where I knew we would just be reading from the script, he broke down in the middle of scenes which had me thinking ‘if he is bringing 110% to rehearsals, I better be a better actor!’ He did his own research for the film, where many of his relatives are doctors so he gathered a lot of information on mental illness from a medical perspective. It was very collaborative, and fun, working with Ritesh.”
She elaborates on the kind of communication she wants Definition Please to instigate across south Asian families, “Yes, Sonny has a diagnosed mental illness, but the other characters have their ways to deal with his issues too. Jaya brushes it under the rug, but Monica has fears and hesitations when it comes to opening up to Sonny again. I want families to watch this film and turn to one another and talk about their own situations. I want there to be less shame around mental illness, especially during this pandemic.”
Ultimately, Sujata wanted the experience to be as raw and real as possible while also showing exactly how South Asian communities stigmatise mental illnesses. “I wanted it to be very natural and just show a south Asian / Indian family dealing with issues that don’t necessarily have to deal with just being Indian,” she reflects.
Money matters in indie
Definition Please taught Sujata — whom we have seen play Sarah in Issa Rae’s Insecure — a great deal about the business model of filmmaking in the indie space, an area she felt she was already confident in. “There are artistes out there that totally focus on the creative side of film which is great. You can make a Lynch or Fincher-like film, but if nobody gets to see it, it’s over.”
For Definition Please , Sujata was both an investor and a producer, raking in money from a television show she sold. “Once I had that first money in, it was easier to get other investors and financiers involved. This is something that people just need to take the veil off in terms of indie filmmaking; you have to talk about paying everyone, make sure that people are happy and getting what they deserve... it all makes for a better work of art, too, because everyone on set is happy and scenes come out well.”
The timing of Definition Please , which has earned praise from Mindy Kaling and Kumail Nanjiani, is remarkable given many feel their control and sense of direction has been taken away from them due to the pandemic, resulting in a lot of self-imposed pressure. “I never thought of it that way,” responds Sujata, who is excited for the film to potentially come to the Indian audience, especially to those who have journeys similar to Monica, Sonny or Jaya’s.