Every morning, Sujata Day wakes up and is thankful she’s not an engineer. It seems like a strange thing to tell yourself every day. But the Indian American actress, writer, and director of the comedy-drama film Definition Please uses this as her daily mantra as she works on her next creative project. Like most first-generation Asian Americans, her pathway towards a career in the entertainment industry was certainly not what she’d envisioned for her life.
From School Plays to Following the Expected Path
“I thought I was going on a different path,” Day told Nerdist via telephone. “But, I get to wake up every morning and create. I get to write. I get to pitch and share my projects with like-minded individuals. It truly is a dream come true.”
Sujata Day grew up in a predominately South Asian community in Greensburg, PA. She was active in school plays and musicals; however, she never thought about pursuing acting professionally. As a kid, she’d not only attend one Hindu temple on the weekends but two. The busy performer would take dance classes at one before heading to another for celebratory events. Day assumed she’d be working in the STEM field because that’s what her peers were doing.
“So I was never pressured to pursue a certain path [from] my parents, but I felt peer pressure from my friends because they were all gonna go on to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers and go to Wharton Business School,” she said. “And I told myself, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do with my life.’ So that’s what made me go to Case Western [Reserve University] to get my engineering degree.”
Executing the Real Master Plan
But, even while at school, Day kept participating in plays and wrote short stories for herself. She took a few screenwriting and playwriting courses for fun. But, she realized she would rather do that instead of her engineering courses. Still, Day did what most Asian kids at the time did. She graduated with the “safe” degree and pursuing her passion on the side. Day got a job at a consulting firm after graduating to earn stable income with benefits. And this gig also gave her the opportunity to move to Los Angeles.
“So my master plan went into motion. [The company] moved me to Los Angeles and I worked for them for a year, but I always say that I was the worst employee they ever had,” Day remembers. “Because when you’re a consultant, you’re on a salary, but you’re not working unless you’re placed on a project. So I just tried really hard to never get placed on a project. That worked out really well for me because [when] I was not on a project, I had free time to go get headshots, take acting classes, find an agent, and set all that foundation in place so that when I did get laid off after a year, that was also a blessing, I got unemployment and a severance and I was prepared for the entertainment world.”
Day began booking national commercials on a regular basis. The actress got her big break on Issa Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl in 2011 and later HBO’s Insecure. During this time, Day got inspiration to expand her profile beyond acting.
“I believe most of the cast and crew of Awkward Black Girl witnessed something really special and it drove us all and inspired us all to think of ourselves as multi-hyphenate people in the business as writers, directors, creators, and actors as well,” she says. “So a lot of us just went on to start our own web series or writing short films or pilots or writing feature films. We also saw Issa put the budget of this web series on credit cards. She paid for a lot of it out of her own pocket. So that was definitely the turning point of me expanding from an actor to other areas like screenwriting, directing, and producing.”
The Creation of Definition Please
Sujata Day’s first feature directorial debut Definition Please (now streaming on Netflix) started in 2015. It began while performing her regular gig with the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), a comedy TV series. As a former spelling bee finalist at her elementary school, Day thought about Scripps Spelling Bee winners. Like her, majority of them are of South Asian descent and achieve high accomplishments afterward.
“If you Google these [winners], they’re all doing really amazing things,” Day explains. “They’re working for NASA or winning the World Poker championship. What if a young spelling bee champion happens to grow up into a young adult and hasn’t achieved the things that she “should” have achieved? She hasn’t reached her potential. So I wanted to explore that in a comedic way in the short sketch that I wrote for UCB, but then, once I was into writing the screenplay for Definition Please, I wanted to delve deeper into the mental and emotional toll that would take on a person.”
In Definition Please, Sujata Day plays Monica, a former Spelling Bee champion whose life is at a standstill. Monica is living at home with her mother while tutoring the next crop of aspiring spelling bee champions. She also deals with the return of her estranged brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan). He’s dealing with an undiagnosed mental illness, as they plan their father’s one-year memorial.
Day based the story in her hometown, even filming in her childhood home. She drew inspiration from the South Asian community she considered home and how it approaches mental health issues. Many Asian immigrant families remain in denial of these mental health conditions, which is why Day created the character Sonny.
“[My community] were all operating on these very high success levels and I watched some of them fall apart,” Day recalls. “Our parents were very confused and didn’t know what to do or how to help. I have friends and acquaintances running away from home who suffered from anxiety, depression, bipolar, and even schizophrenia.”
Day made sure she did her research when it came to crafting the character. She spoke to several friends and family who dealt with mental illness and the families that it had affected. She also spoke with doctors, psychologists, therapists, and counselors and read up on the different medications for bipolar disorder.
“[I didn’t want to just have Sonny] living with mental illness,” she explains. “[I wanted to show] how [his mother] and Monica react to him, because I also wanted to portray the people who love the person with mental illness and how they handle it in their own lives as well.”
The film also touches on Sujata Day’s Bengali background. It allows viewers to get a glimpse of the different Indian cultures within each other. She found immense joy adding that aspect to Monica’s family.
“What’s really exciting is that [Indians] are a lot similar, but once you get into the nitty gritty of Bengalis vs. Gujarati vs. South Indian vs. Punjabi, it’s really fun to notice our differences,” Day explains. “That’s exciting for me, to see writers lean into their very specific backgrounds so I can watch a family that’s Gujarati American onscreen or a Tamil family onscreen. That’s exciting to me because I know that, even though we have a lot in common, there’s so many things that are specifically uniquely their culture.”
The Sujata Day Stories of the Future
Now, there’s an increase of South Asians in Hollywood. So, Day is excited to continue telling more stories surrounding being a first-generation South Asian American woman. She doesn’t want to shy away from what makes her stand out and has remained productive during the pandemic. In fact, Day is writing several pilots, including a horror and a comedy with South Asian characters.
“I’m just excited to see all the different stories that emerge out of this renaissance of South Asian female creators,” Day affirms. “I became friends with a lot of them over the pandemic because a lot of our projects were coming out at the same time. So I’m excited about the next thing that [directors] Geeta Malik, Maureen Bharoocha, Iram Parveen Bilal, and Minhal Baig come out with! It’s really exciting that all of us are championing and supporting each other and that’s how it should be.”
Sujata Day credits her resilience in the making of Definition Please and her daily creative writing. She understands how the industry works, but is ready to push more of her stories out there.
“The fact that I get to be a part of this industry that entertains, educates, and brings people together keeps me going,” Day says. “And, I’m just excited that I’m not an engineer.”