Director Sujata Day highlights her authentic South Asian-American point of view in "Definition
"If we didn’t write these roles for ourselves, they simply wouldn’t exist." - Sujata Day
After reading script after script of stereotypical roles for South-Asian women, the multi-hyphenate Sujata Day took matters into her own hands and wrote her dream role. Definition Please, the feature film starring and directed by Day steps away from the usual/tired Desi storylines and highlights real issues that everyday South-Asian Americans face.
The film recently premiered at Bentonville Film Festival and we had the opportunity to chat with Day about writing, directing and the evolution of South-Asians in the industry.
1. What was it like being a first time director of a feature film?
It was the best experience of my life. I’ve directed a couple smaller projects before, like my first short film, Cowboy and Indian that I also wrote/produced/directed/starred in. Preparation is the key to pulling off anything independent like this, and I made sure to be over-prepared. I also gave myself permission to fail. Nothing was ever going to be perfect or exactly the way I envisioned, so I adapted to crew, budget, cast, locations, and a lot of other little things. I tried to channel Debbie Allen and Tina Mabry, who were my favorite directors to work with on Insecure. They were so giving, nurturing, and kind while also being powerful, confident, and collaborative.
2. What were your biggest challenges while filming? Raising money was the biggest challenge. As the writer/producer/director/star of the film, balancing the multiple creative roles of the process was easy because I was working on something I really believed in and I gathered the most talented crew and cast to pull it off. Convincing people to believe in me monetarily was a whole other story. It was emotionally exhausting, but honestly I let any potential investors know I was going to find a way to make this film, with or without their help. Luckily in the end, we ended up with passionate investors who trusted and allowed our creative team to flourish, with very little artistic interference and a whole lot of financial support. 3. What were the biggest obstacles you faced while writing/creating Monica's family?
I didn’t really face any obstacles while writing/creating my Definition Please family, since I had plenty of material from my own background. I grew up around many South Asian-American families and was very in touch with my Indian heritage growing up. I went to Hindu summer camp, took Bharatnatyam classes, and had close Indian friends. I think it took me about a month to write the first draft and then, of course, many months of getting notes from trusted friends and family and rewriting. The film is not autobiographical but still deeply personal to me. I wanted to convey a very American story with a family who just happens to be South Asian-American. 4. Can you share a fun memory you had while filming on set? My mom makes a cameo in the film, it’s her big screen debut. My mom is an extrovert and pretty much the life of every party. I had to kick my parents out of their own home for a couple days when we were shooting but then they came back to shoot the scene my mom was in. My dad saw the chaos, immediately bounced and checked himself into a quiet hotel nearby. My mom soaked up every moment, starting with being in hair and makeup. She picked the sari she was going to wear and practiced her few lines. Anna Khaja (Jaya) and Ritesh Rajan (Sonny) calmed her nerves while we set up the shot. We wrapped at 4am that night, but my mom was wide awake, taking it all in and making everyone laugh in between takes.
5. As an established South-Asian actress how have you seen the industry evolve over the years? We’re moving away from stereotypical, one-note characters written by non-South Asians to fully developed, realized characters written by South Asians. People with power in the industry are calling out inaccurate POV’s and recognizing their own complicit behavior in greenlighting or playing offensive material and roles. However, there’s still a lot more work to be done. A couple years ago, I was close to getting a recurring role in a long-running, very successful sitcom. Right after the callback, I got a call from my agent saying that casting was asking if I was 100% Indian. The answer is yes, but I was floored that white casting directors were questioning my Indian-ness. That specific experience really kicked up my gears to produce my own project. 6. More opportunities are presenting themselves for South-Asian talent, however, there are still many hurdles to overcome. Do you have any advice for aspiring South-Asian creators? Nothing is stopping you from writing your story that only you can tell. There’s no excuse to not be creating content anymore. Make an IG series, shoot funny Tik-Toks, throw some shorts up on YouTube. Even David Lynch is making shorts on YouTube now. Back in the day, there was no choice but to shoot on film. Now, we all have video cameras in our pockets. If you’re stuck at home with your parents during quarantine, recruit them to be in your vids. Some of my fave quarantine content features parents and grandmas. Get creative. Let go of perfection. Make mistakes and learn from them. Shoot one. Shoot the next one. Shoot the one after that. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.