How ‘Definition Please’ creator Sujata Day wrote the roles she wanted to play, onscreen and off

Sujata Day.
“I wanted to write the character that I wanted to play,” said actor and filmmaker Sujata Day, who makes her feature directorial debut with the indie dramedy “Definition Please.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

Three years ago, Sujata Day decided to take the biggest leap of her career: she would direct and star in her own feature film, “Definition Please,” about a 20-something former spelling bee champion still living at home in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

Unlike the characters in scripts she was getting sent, her own protagonist, a first-generation South Asian American slacker, found comfort, not conflict, in her culture — freeing her to explore other serio-comic ups and downs of her arrested development. Day had actor friends in mind to round out the cast, and her parents were not only willing to let her film in their house, they were elated she was betting on herself.

“They were like, ‘Finally! You’re making a feature film,’” said Day, beaming over Zoom ahead of the film’s debut on Netflix, where it is now available after being acquired last fall by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing.

Sujata Day and Ritesh Rajan in “Definition Please.”
Sujata Day stars as Monica opposite Ritesh Rajan as her brother Sonny in the sibling dramedy “Definition Please,” now available on Netflix.
(June Street Productions)

Bit by bit over the years, Day remembers, inspiration from her creative community had nudged her forward in her own short projects while she acted steadily in TV and film. Co-starring in Issa Rae’s 2011 “Awkward Black Girl” web series, she had a front-row seat as the future “Insecure” creator scrapped together a breakout show on credit cards and crowdfunding. (Day also joined the cast of “Insecure” in its first three seasons and returned for the finale.) In 2017, she saw friend and fellow actor Justin Chon take his own self-started indie drama, “Gook,” to Sundance.

“Watching my friends do it made me believe that I could do it,” said Day, an L.A.-based UCB and Sundance Labs alum who wore multiple hats — writer, director, producer and lead — on “Definition Please.” She financed the shoot with her own savings, recruited friends and family to help, and rolled with the pandemic’s punches to take it to festivals and find a home. Later, she scored the added co-sign of Mindy Kaling, who came aboard as executive producer.

Filmed in 12 days in her hometown of Greensburg, Pa. (“Low-budget indie, baby!” Day said with a smile), the dramedy stars Day as Monica Chowdry, an ex-”Scribbs” National Spelling Bee winner drifting through adulthood, tutoring young overachievers and caring for her ailing mother, Jaya (Anna Khaja). When her older brother Sonny (a charismatic Ritesh Rajan) comes home for the one-year memorial of their father’s death, buried wounds resurface and force both siblings to reckon with the past.

The film’s ensemble includes Jake Choi as former classmate and love interest Richie, Lalaine as Monica’s ride-or-die best friend Krista, Sonal Shah and “Star Trek” icon LeVar Burton, playing himself. With “Definition Please” debuting to a worldwide streaming audience, Day looked back on filming in her parents’ house, weaving Monica’s first-generation Bengali American perspective into the script, and what it took to get her labor of love off the ground.

A child stands onstage before a microphone in a scene from the film "Definition Please"
“I leaned in to my Bengali American heritage,” said Day. “I think the more specific you get in your point of view, the more universal the entire project becomes.”
(June Street Productions)

“Definition Please” centers around Monica Chowdry, a young woman from Greensburg, Pa. What brought you back creatively to your hometown?
I love Greensburg. My friends from back home are always shocked by how much I’m obsessed with our hometown. I love going to eat pizza at Panera Bread. I love going to Applebee’s. I love going to the mall. I love shopping at Gabe’s, which is a discount clothing store in Greensburg. I love the people. I had a really great childhood. Not only did I have my school friends, but there was a thriving Indian American community so I was going to the temple for Bharatanatyam dance classes on Sundays, I was going to Hindu temple summer camp at Lake Erie, I was going to graduations, birthdays, parties on the weekends. I’m very lucky in that I felt I never had to choose between two cultures. I never had that conflict inside of me.

The film introduces a heroine who has failed to achieve the greatness once expected of her. How did you figure out where she goes from there?
I pulled from the Indian American community that I grew up with, and personality traits from my friends, and threw them into the movie with my characters. I wanted to examine the question of, why did she not fulfill her potential? Because if you Google the spelling bee champs of the past, they’re all doing really incredible things.

I’ve never done that. What are they doing?
They’re like, working at NASA as scientists. They are champions on the World Poker Tour because they’re really good at numbers. They’re world-class mathematicians. So it excited me to explore, what are the reasons why Monica hasn’t moved on in her life? Why is she stuck in this state of arrested development?

I was inspired by some of my favorite indie films, especially sibling drama-comedies like “Skeleton Twins,” “The Savages,” “You Can Count On Me.” I love Duplass brothers movies as well, which are so deeply character-focused. I knew I wanted it to be about the relationships, and I wanted to show a South Asian American family in a way that you’ve never seen before.

Sujata Day, Anna Khaja and Ritesh Rajan in "Definition Please"
“I really had to trust my instincts and trust my performing and their performances,” said Day of directing herself, along with Anna Khaja, center, and Ritesh Rajan. “If we had gotten it and it felt real and grounded, then I knew we could move on.”
(Array Releasing)

I wanted to show a South Asian American family in a way that you’ve never seen before.

— Sujata Day


A 20-something stuck in life is such a classic American indie film setup, but most of those stories are about young white men. Here, you also write Monica’s identity and culture into the fabric of the movie without making any of it the source of conflict.
I wanted to do the complete opposite and say, “Here is a young woman who is balancing both cultures really beautifully.” I didn’t want to explain any of the traditional Indian stuff; it’s just there to be enjoyed, because when I watch shows about different worlds that I’m not necessarily familiar with, I love to just be washed in the story and not have things explained to me. If I have questions during a movie or show, I’ll look it up later. No big deal. I wanted to treat the audience as intelligent individuals and allow them to be immersed in their emotions as opposed to being talked to like, “This is India.”

Once you decided to self-finance the film, who did you call first?
I had worked with Ritesh Rajan a few years before 2019 on a hilarious YouTube video called “A Diverse Film” where we did a parody of “A Whole New World,” a song about inclusivity in Hollywood. He was one of the first people that I thought of in terms of the role of Sonny, and I knew as an actor he could pull it off. The next role was Anna Khaja for Jaya. Anna plays so many moms on TV. She played Priyanka Chopra’s mom on “Quantico,” she played Jameela Jamil’s mom on “The Good Place.” She also played Ritesh’s mom in “Stitchers,” so they had already had a previous working relationship. I sent her the script. The next day she wrote back, “I would be honored to play this role — I’ve never read anything like this before.”

Writer-director Sujata Day also stars in “Definition Please,” a comedy-drama about a former Indian American spelling-bee champion.

Jan. 20, 2022

The rest of your ensemble also rebuts the typical absence of characters of color in so many American indie family dramas.
I always thought of Lalaine to play Krista. She’s a friend of mine, and she just killed it. She was the best person for the role and she is also Filipino, so that was cool. I did think of white boys to play Richie, and we were going to go the star route and see if we could get a celebrity for that role, and I pulled back from that. I met Jake [Choi] and I was like, “This dude is hot.” So I reached out to him and I don’t think he read the script, he just said yes right away.

And we have so many fun cameos. Parvesh Cheena is a friend of mine. Sonal Shah kills it, steals every scene that she’s in. I’m so happy that people are going to get to witness her hilarity in this movie. Tim Chiou has a really nice cameo. At the end of the day, I’m just so proud of my cast and so grateful that they all said yes.

You also already knew LeVar Burton. How did he end up in the film?
Pre-pandemic I was part of this Black and brown nerd brunch group called the Blerds, and we would have brunch every Sunday. We were sitting for lunch one day and LeVar Burton walks by the restaurant. Yvette Nicole Brown, who was also one of the Blerds, was like, “I’ve worked with him, I’m going to go grab him and introduce him to everybody.” So he comes and sits at the table and the first thing he says is, “Everyone, get on your phones. Take my phone number.” It was a couple of months later that I decided to make “Definition Please,” and I knew I had this perfect role for him. So I shot him a text. He read the scene and he said yes, and I was shocked. He came in and shot a day of the movie and it was so great. Even after he was done shooting, he stood up there on the stage and asked if anybody wanted a picture with him. And of course, everybody did.

Two women sit together at a table with drinks in front of them in a scene from the film "Definition Please."
Sujata Day, left, as Monica and Lalaine as Krista in “Definition Please.”
(Array Releasing)

In the film you introduce fantasy asides in which we pause to see through Monica’s gaze, often objectifying the men who cross her path. Is it fair to say, as some critics have noted, that those moments are Bollywood nods?
When someone first brought that up, I was like, “Was I influenced by Bollywood?” I was actually just home watching Bengali soap operas with my mom and they definitely have the slo-mo moments with the women and the wind blowing through their hair. I think I’ve grown up seeing those images and I wanted to see it flipped. I think it’s also accentuated by the music, and the one theme song that runs throughout the film was completely inspired by three or four popular Bollywood songs from the ’90s and ’00s that I love and grew up with. Those were songs that I had sent to Amanda Jones, my amazing composer, and she created this whole new song with Bengali lyrics to play during those moments. So yes, I was subconsciously inspired.


And how did you persuade your parents to let you film in their home?
Honestly, they were so excited to have everyone at the house, to have the yard being used when we would have our lunches and to have different parts of the house be the focus of different scenes. My dad would go around with his camera and shoot behind-the-scenes stuff. My mom actually plays a small cameo in the film, at the dinner party. She sits next to Jaya and she’s telling Sonny that she has a [marriage] prospect.

How did seeing the film through this journey affect you creatively?
I feel completely invigorated. I am in pre-production on my next feature film that I wrote during the pandemic. It’s an ensemble Indian American comedy. And I’m also pitching a few different shows right now to studios and networks. It’s really fun! I can’t believe it’s happening.