Sujata Day is a “triple threat” in Hollywood: she wrote, directed, and starred in Definition Please, now available on Netflix. Set in Greensburg, PA, the film takes a uniquely raw, unflinching, and at times comedic look at mental health issues in the South Asian community.
We spoke with Sujata about the motivations behind Definition Please, mental illness in the South Asian community, and what’s next for the talented filmmaker and actress.
Our discussion is available in its entirety below, either on Spotify or YouTube. The transcript is also provided for reference.
Hi everyone, this is Nikhil and Shelly, and we are coming to you from Chicago. With us today is Sujata Day. She is a filmmaker and an actress. Her film Definition Please has just been released on Netflix, very hard-hitting movie that talks about a lot of issues including mental health in the Indian community. And then other issues such as careers and cultural implications of the “model minority myth,” and just a whole host of things.
Just want to tell you a little bit about Sujata. With her infectious personality and unique sense of humor, Pittsburgh native Sujata Day has established herself as a performer, creator, writer and director. Sujata is known for her starring role as CeCe and Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, she’s recurred for four seasons on HBO’s Insecure, she is a Sundance lab fellow, Sundance Film Festival influencer and Sundance collab advisor, her short film Cowboy and Indian sold to a major studio for a series development.
She served as HBO visionaries ambassador in 2019. She directs This Is My Story, a series in which beloved storyteller LeVar Burton (from Reading Rainbow), narrates personal experiences of everyday racism. Sujata is debut award winning feature film Definition Please, was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY and is now streaming on Netflix.
Sujata, it’s great to have you here. Thanks so much for joining us.
Yeah, it’s great to be here.
So do you want to start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your story?
Yeah, I was born and raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Greensburg, which you can see in the film, that’s where I shot the movie. And I filmed it in my parents’ house, in my childhood home. And growing up, I had a really great childhood, I went to school, and I had my school friends.
But then also, we were lucky enough to be near to temples in the region. So on the weekends, and at night, we would be I would be going to Bharatanatyam dance classes on Sundays and going to Hindu temple summer camp in Lake Erie every year. And so I was going to parties, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations with my Indian American friends. And that was really fun. So I started doing, I started performing in plays and theater activities in elementary school. And through middle school, I did musicals, also through high school, doing musicals, and was writing and very much into the arts. My parents supported me with the arts, which was really cool.
But I was also very good at math and science. So I did, I did it all. But in terms of being in the musicals, my parents would be there every single night with a bouquet of flowers. And that’d be like six nights in a row. And it was really great. And so when I decided to go to college, I wasn’t really getting pressure from my parents to do a certain thing because I had done a special six week program after sophomore year of high school, where we lived at Pitt at the University of Pittsburgh, and it’s called the Governor’s School for health care.
So it was for blossoming doctors. And I came back from that six-week experience saying, Well, I’m not going to be a doctor. That’s a that’s checked off the list. My parents were like, okay, and I think I got more peer pressure from my Indian American friends in terms of what they were doing with their lives, and they were all going out going to six-year med programs.
They were getting into the Ivy League schools, they were getting a ton of scholarships, and they were in like eight AP classes at once. And so I told myself, Oh, well, I got to do something like that, right. So then I went to Case Western, and I got my engineering degree, but at the same time I was still writing and doing plays and theatre and I took actually one semester of screenwriting and one semester playwriting, which started to hone my short story and prose writing into more of a specific form. And so I did a study abroad in Sydney, Australia.
And that’s where I really went full force with the theater and making theater friends. And that’s where I decided, okay, I have to do this. I have to take a chance. And I just started manipulating my life to find my way to Los Angeles. And I got a job with Accenture. And they moved me out there. And little did they know that I was going to be the worst Accenture employee that ever had. I just tried never to get put on a project.
Right. Wait, what? On the beach, right? You were on the beach?
Yes, I was always on the beach. I was like, oh. Oh, great. Great. Yeah, I was just like, ah, too bad. I couldn’t get put on that project but I would just be meeting with agents and taking acting classes and getting headshots. And I’m really starting to lay the foundation for my professional life career in Los Angeles. And so I got laid off after a year, which was great, got severance, unemployment, all the good stuff.
And it was actually I wasn’t the only one who got laid off. It was just like this round of layoffs. So, uh, didn’t feel like it was my fault, even though I was a terrible employee. And then I about 8 to 10 months later, I booked three national commercials in a row, which is not normal. That is a commercials are always based on luck and appearance. And really just jumpstarted my career and then I start doing Awkward Black Girl. And then that was it.
There’s the character of Monica, who’s Indian. So she’s kind of governed by this “model minority myth,” which is to kind of keep your head down, make it up the food chain, really live the American dream.
But what I loved about your movie, and I found it the, the genesis of the whole thing interesting, because I think you had said, it was an outgrowth of an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch about South Asians and the spelling bee or something like that, right?
Yeah, yeah. So in 2015, I took my initial inspiration of winning my class spelling bee in the fourth grade and going on to regionals and losing. I took that idea. And I entitled a sketch where they now Spelling Bee winners. And if you look all of them up, they’re all NASA scientists. Yet designing robots working at Google, probably in the C suite over there. And I took that the punch line of that sketch was that one of them just turned out to not live up to her potential and to kind of be a bum and live in her mom’s basement.
We’re just curious, what do you think, in terms of the rationale when you were writing the story about when she’s offered the job in Cleveland why does she feel compelled not to take it just curious if you can add a little color to that?
Yeah, I think there’s a multitude of reasons.
I think she’s in a state of arrested development just in her head. So when we talk about mental health in the film, a lot of us speak on Sonny’s character played beautifully by Ritesh Rajan, but I truly believe all of these characters have mental health issues. And as does Monica and her, her issues that she cannot move on from this spelling bee that she has won, and she knows that she’s never going to live up to that.
And she judges people when she meets them through words, and it’s this, like, judges them by the book. And she has a lot of flaws that she has to get over before she trusts herself enough to take that job in Cleveland. And she also has familial responsibilities.
So that’s part of it part of our South Asian culture is we’re very close to our families and I certainly am. And so if a family member sick, you kind of have to figure out who’s going to take care of them. And so that’s part of not being able to take the job.
Another reason, and I think in the back of her head is that she has this very contentious relationship with her brother. And even though she doesn’t invite him home, she has to face that head on before she can really move on to the next stage of her life.
Absolutely. And there’s such a huge element of guilt within our families that we have to please our parents, we have to do certain things, expectations, and I feel like you know, this is an incredible movie, because you’re bringing out mental illness to the world and India as well, with 197 million people suffering undiagnosed.
So it’s not available in Netflix India yet. But, but we’re hoping we’re hoping it will be very soon.
I’d be very curious to see what people think out in India, and what kind of feedback you would get based on such a topic that’s full of stigma, and very difficult for Indians and South Asians in general to talk about.
I will say that I’ve talked to some younger younger millennial Gen Z reporters and journalists about the film out of India, and they are very optimistic and positive about it. And they have told me they’re like, Oh, we don’t get content like this. And I think it would be really good for especially the younger Indian crowd, I think they would they really enjoy it.
Yeah, yeah, this movie holds particularly dear to us. Because I don’t know if you know, our backstory at all. But Nikhil suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder for literally two decades. And so we were the type of people growing up and everything that we were pleasers, I was pleaser to my parents. And I did not acknowledge the mental illness that was going on within our family. And it destroyed our marriage, it went undiagnosed for two decades. His father’s a psychiatrist, it was a very difficult thing. But ultimately, I came to terms that he did have this illness, help save his life, and we came full circle. So this was a very special movie, and very dear to our hearts.
Yeah, I really appreciate that. Because that was something that I took great care, in terms of who was going to be watching this film, and I wanted to make sure that we didn’t sensationalize or exploit the, the characters or their journeys along the way. And I in terms of developing the script, I took a lot from personal experience. It’s not an autobiography, but it was it was all around me.
So whether it was friends or extended family members, it was it was always prevalent in my life. And I know for with Ritesh, same sentiment, he comes from a family of doctors, so he had a lot of people, he could talk to you in terms of the character obviously, like we discussed the mental health of it all as well, and specifically bipolar disorder. So it means a lot to me that people who have suffered through this feel like we portrayed it in an accurate and authentic way.
Absolutely. One of the things that it’s such a fascinating topic because with, with Indian South Asians, I think, obviously, the immigrant angle, the immigration angle plays into it, because there’s always that proverbial $8 that every immigrant came to this country with, and you know, a bag of turmeric or whatever. And they always, they always say better, why? Why do you feel so sad?
Or we came here with nothing and you get everything and so there’s almost a gaslighting, right, because it’s almost like, there’s this sense that you don’t deserve to have those feelings where it’s just, you have everything provided to you, and you’re not acknowledging everything that that has been given to you. But then I think the other thing is, is just that there is this desire to live up to that, that model minority myth, and any acknowledgement of weakness or dysfunction.
It’s almost like a carryover from what the way it is in India, because in a lot of places, I mean, we found this even in our journey, where in India if there’s a relative who has some type of disorders and mental illness, there’s this thought that there’s some “spiritual imbalance” or something like that. And no joke.
Like, literally we went through a phase where Shelley’s aunt would try to sprinkle spices in my sprinkled solids in the cooking to try to, fix the “spiritual demons” and things like that.
Could you tell us a little bit about sort of the attitudes towards mental illness in in your community? Like how that informed some of the treatments in Definition Please?
Yeah, I mean, in high school, I had a lot of Indian American friends, like I said, we were all at the top of our class, doing all the extracurriculars, making sure that we were in the fit classes, so we could get the best scores. And there would be one of the friends would just, like, run away from home for like, two weeks, and then the parents would, would sail those things like, what, uh, why is Anand gone he, he gets everything he needs here, he has a roof over his head, he gets fed three times a day.
And and, and we also, as kids didn’t really know what was going on, but we’re like, well, he doesn’t feel well he’s depressed or anxious about tests. And I noticed that happening, but we didn’t have the words to kind of communicate what was happening. And the parents certainly didn’t have any words to communicate what was happening.
So then, and then I went to Case Western, and once again, a very stressful science, medicine, engineering environment. And not only did I see it in the South Asian students, but I saw it in the Asian American students as well, it just kind of I saw it there. And, and it would lead to devastating circumstances of people taking their own lives. And I was just like, oh, this is a, this is a community issue that nobody is talking about. And, and then I saw it within my extended family as well.
And like you said, being treated with spices or prayers, and, and you’re just like, No, this should be treated like cancer this should be treated like this should be treated like COVID is being treated so. So that those were the particular experiences that shaped how I wrote the characters and how they were portrayed.
It is such an important topic to address, because, as we mentioned with the spices and everything people have, I think they undergo acts of desperation in those moments, and they look at spiritual ism, which will take us far, but it’ll only take us so far. So there’s not an acknowledgement of mental illness in India as much. I think it’s evolving, for sure.
But there’s still a lot of things that need to be done. People are really stigma, there’s so much stigma out there, people are saying you’re not going to get married, if you have a mental illness, you’re going to be shunned from society.
I mean, it’s very, very sad. And the numbers and stats that they report are probably highly underestimated because people are not getting the treatment to get help when they need it. So you know, that’s why it’s so important, the story that you’re telling and definition, please the book that we’re launching everything that a South Asians are really doing to bring this to the forefront.
Like it’s improving Sujata like, I mean, it’s with more with South Asians kind of coming to the forefront and people obviously, with social media people are, there’s a kind of an outgrowth and an explosion of creativity where people are telling their stories. How do you feel like it’s evolving, because it’s kind of a double-edged sword, right, because social media, obviously, I loved your story about how you would connect with Issa Rae. I think you said she followed you on Twitter or something like that?
Well, I followed her on Twitter first. And it was because this, this group called film, TV diversity would be tweeting out on Follow Friday, follow these writers, directors, creators, and she was one of them. And she followed me back.
So I was just bringing that up, because it’s an illustration. I mean, social media is a real double-edged sword because obviously, there’s this opportunity for connection that you didn’t have three years ago.
So I mean, there’s so many people. I just interviewed an expert on South Asian mental health yesterday, and we happen to go to college together, but I connected with her because she shared an article on LinkedIn, it’s just it’s amazing. The opportunity there.
However, it’s the other issue of social media, which is this compunction to put your best “selfie face forward” just portray this image of having the model life. How do you feel, I guess, with social media is one aspect but kind of impacting that journey. But how do you feel these? How do you feel the journey is going for South Asians and mental health given that there’s the model minority myth, but then there’s also this compunction to sort of have that Instagram ready lifestyle?
Yeah, I think. But you really have to be able to talk about stuff. And that’s, that’s what my film hopefully opens up communication about the issues, which I’m seeing kind of, from all. So many direct messages and emails and notes that I’m getting from audiences and people who say, Oh, wow, this is my husband, or this is my brother, my dad, or my mom, or another family member, a friend.
And and I think that seeing it happen on screen, and telling yourself, oh, wow, this is happening to a lot of people. It’s not just me, I think that’s a feeling of relief. First of all, and and it makes you feel less alone.
And, and I think that it people who are watching who maybe you’re dealing with this, and especially after the two years that we’ve had during the pandemic, where a lot of us have been isolated from our friends or family.
I think that there’s just more communication out there about mental health in general. And I think that is reaching our community as well. And especially parents and caregivers, are telling themselves Oh, this is this is a real thing. If CNN is talking about it, then it’s a real thing. Vivek Murty, the US Surgeon general is talking about it, then it’s a real thing. So I think I see, I have optimism in that we will continue to discuss and, and help each other and make sure that people get the right therapy you could be anyone going to therapy, you don’t have to necessarily have a specific issue.
And just talking about that is a gateway to more.
I mean, I completely agree with you, the more stories we tell, the more it resonates with people, the more they understand that they’re not alone, that this is a very common thing. And you’re right, it should be treated like cancer, it should be treated like any physical ailment I mean, we’re from a family of four physicians. Sujata, and we were raised with education around us, and growth and knowledge is power.
But yet we fell for the trap of this is a stigma- “my husband cannot be mentally ill, this can’t be happening to me.” I mean, I had all those kind of subconscious beliefs in me. And ultimately, it was the total destruction of our entire family, and marriage and children. And he almost lost his life as well. So that is I look at my failures and my shortcomings as something that I can help other people hopefully avoid, through my triumphs, my tragedies, and everything that we went through as a family full circle.
So I really want to say again, I appreciate you bringing this topic to the forefront, because the more stories we tell, and the more people more people we talk to your right, it’s going to have a huge impact.
What’s next for you, Sujata, in terms of themes you’re looking to explore, because obviously mental health is a is a big one. And it’s I think it’s really groundbreaking the way you’ve captured it in definition, please but what’s I guess what’s next for Sujata Day in terms of topics in terms of journeys and stories, and maybe if you could shed a little bit of light on that.
Yeah, I wrote a bunch of scripts over the pandemic. I’m gonna admit all of them are comedies. I need and want to make people laugh. I like to laugh a lot of the stuff that I watched over the past two years were very funny things and I’m I am in pre-production for my next feature film, which is South Asian American ensemble comedy very excited about I was shooting back in Pennsylvania. And I’m also pitching a couple shows. Everything kind of to be shot in Pennsylvania. So I’m just excited about getting my next things off the ground.
That’s so exciting. That’s great. So let’s talk about the media on Hollywood. South Asians are coming more and more to the forefront in Hollywood, and it is definitely evolved over the last couple of years. Where do you see South Asians being within Hollywood in the next couple of years? What’s your prediction?
I mean, I already feel like things are moving in the right direction. I over the pandemic actually, I connected with a lot of fellow South Asian female filmmakers, including Geeta Malik, and Iram Parveen Bilal, and I already knew Minhal Baig. But I feel like we are this amazing sisterhood of filmmakers that are tackling almost every single genre.
And so that’s really exciting to me, I think it’s about not boxing ourselves in there’s so many stories to tell. And not one of ours is alike. So I’m excited to watch more projects from these particular filmmakers, but also anyone that we’ve inspired by the movies that we’ve already created.
So a lot of actors and actresses I mean, they sort of evolve and they get they start taking girls behind the camera, like Mindy Kaling, I think, is a prime example. Is that where are you in that journey? Is that a path you’re anticipating for yourself? Or you’re gravitating towards? Or are you still sort of feeling your way around? What’s the path you have laid out for yourself? What’s your “five year plan,” to use a Desi professional term.
I mean, I’m an actor first. And I started writing and directing to create the roles that I wanted to play the lead roles that I wasn’t getting to audition for. So I’m going to continue to pursue acting but also write and direct and I think at this point, you really don’t have to choose anymore. You can follow in the footsteps of Isssa Rae and Donald Glover and Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and, and really focus on what you truly love.
Yes, definitely. So I think if there’s anything else you want to add, or you know, we can obviously we’re here. We can talk as long as you want. But I want to be mindful.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I do have to go so I’m, I feel like you guys did a great job. It was really it was a great conversation.
No, we really are so thankful to you for the movie and for also just for spending some time with us. I know your schedules. Obviously, your dance card’s very full. So we do appreciate it. And Shelly, was there anything else you wanted to add?
Where can everyone find you?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. So well, Definition Please is on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. We’re at Definition Please on Facebook and Instagram and on Twitter we’re defnplease. And then me personally at Sujata Day Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Perfect, perfect.
Well, we’re so excited to see everything that you have coming on the forefront and what you’re going to be producing and acting and congratulations to you again on your first debut film as a producer and director. So thank you so much.
It was really great being here. Thank you.
So this is Nikhil and Shelly from the Shelly story signing, signing off from Chicago, Illinois. Thanks, everyone.