Spelling and opsimaths: Sujata Day and Ritesh Rajan on the late coming-of-age dramedy ‘Definition Please’
Definition Please follows Monica (Sujata Day), a one-time spelling bee champion who can’t seem to catch a break. Stuck at home juggling her work as a tutor for other aspiring spelling bee hopefuls and taking care of her ailing mother, Monica seems destined to live and die in her hometown — despite the protests of her best friend who knows that she’s capable of much more. However, when Monica’s estranged, troubled older brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) comes home to honor the anniversary of their father’s death, emotions fly freely. Sonny and Monica, who are both forced to relive childhood traumas — as well as revel in gleeful childhood memories — have to reevaluate their relationship with one another and the familial burdens that they each carry.
But despite the film’s rarely seen depiction of an imperfect Indian American family that extends beyond academics, Definition Please’s crowning achievement comes through in the form of Monica and Sonny’s rocky sibling relationship. At the heart of it, it’s a story about two young adults who are still just trying to figure out their places in the world — no matter how long it may take them.
At this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, we were lucky enough to sit down with Sujata Day (director, producer, actress, and writer) and Ritesh Rajan (actor) about how they brought the film to life.
Where did the concept for this film come from?
Sujata Day: Everything I write comes from a real experience or tidbit out of my life, so it goes back to fourth grade where I won my fourth grade class spelling bee. And then I went on to Regionals and I lost in the first round on the word “radish!” It was devastating, so I’ve always remembered that moment. Years later, in 2015, I was in my UCB sketch-writing class and one of the sketches was called “Where Are They Now? Spelling Bee Winners” and the punchline of the sketch was that one of the spelling bee winners didn’t go on to make robots, or design vaccines or do something super smart. She just ended up kind of living in her mom’s basement and not thriving.
So that sketch — it was four pages long. I expanded it into Definition Please. I wanted to write a slice of life dramedy about an Indian American family, and that’s what I did!
What was it like directing/producing/writing/acting in your own film, and juggling all of these different roles?
SD: I’m really good at compartmentalizing stuff, so once I had the shooting script finished, I put it away. So my writer hat, I put away. And then I put on my director and producer hat to cast the film, get my crew around me, and that’s how I found Ritesh.
The acting part — my character wasn’t a hard role for me emotionally, and I did that on purpose. And Ritesh has all the emotional stuff in it! Because I knew that I would be directing and producing!
Ritesh Rajan: It was a team effort!
SD: My character was really reacting and responding to what he was giving me, and I did that completely on purpose so I didn’t have to worry about getting to an emotional place in a scene or on set. And that’s how I developed the way to compartmentalize and put away hats, and I just made sure to get a lot of sleep even when we were shooting the film!
RR: We were pretty good. I gotta say, the schedule was pretty good. I always say this — she ran a really tight ship but everything was organized, and it was a really great safe space artistically and we were able to flex our muscles and have a good time.
It was very sweet because we were in her hometown. We shot in her childhood home, so she knew what she was doing. It felt really conducive as performers to see the level of confidence she brought to the project wearing so many different hats. I only had one job, so I had to do it right!
One of the memorable features of this film is Monica’s troubled relationship with her brother, Sonny. What was it like working with Ritesh, and what was the process like casting him as your on-screen brother?
SD: I met Ritesh through AJ Rafael a couple years ago. We did a panel and AJ was hanging out after. And we both realized that we had both auditioned for the live action Aladdin!
RR: I’ve known AJ for like 15 years, because him and I were both the only Asians on Glee Project when we auditioned. We didn’t make it to the final round but I was like, “Oh, there’s another Asian guy,” and he was like “Oh, there’s another Asian guy there!” But because he was from LA and I was from New York, they had separated us, but we were like “Hey, let’s be friends!”
SD: We stayed in touch, and we did a parody video on “A Whole New World” called “A Diverse Film” on YouTube. I knew that we got along, and we had good chemistry! He looks great on camera, and so I texted him and asked him if he wanted to play a lead role in my film. Then I took him to RockSugar and convinced him to be in my movie!
RR: It was pretty painless. She had told me when we were doing “A Diverse Film” that she was working on a script and to take a look at it when she was done. People say that to you all the time and you don’t hear from them for five years. And literally five weeks later, she was like, “I finished the script! I want you to play my brother.”
It was a beautiful story and for me, it was a very unique opportunity to jump into a character that is very multi-faceted. I could tackle two things at once — one is dealing with the mental health aspect of it and the other is just being able to make a movie for the community, and tell a story about a South Asian family going through their shit. It has nothing to do with “Ooh, look at us we’re Indian,” it’s more like, “Look at us, we have problems too,” and how do we solve these issues? I hope people can watch this movie and relate to that.
SD: So after I cast Ritesh, I asked him to come over just to do a read-through of the script and our scenes, and I very much said it was a casual read-through. And then he comes over, and we’re reading through the script, and he’s like bawling, in character, on my couch. Inside my head, I just said, “Oh, I have to bring it!” He made me a better actress by getting to his level.
RR: I was scared! Because I’m like, “I’m going to the director’s house! She could fire me at any moment! I need to bring my choices, I need to know what’s going on, I need to have my questions ready.” And she was like, “Hey, what’s up? Do you want a cup of cha?”
In the film, there are moments where Monica, as the former spelling bee winner, goes throughout her day pairing small moments in her life with large words. If you had to pick, what would be your favorite spelling bee word from the film?
SD: I loved “opsimath.” That’s the word that opens the film, and it is also a part of a theme of the film, because I believe it means “someone who blooms later on in life.” And that’s what my character does!
RR: Sonny has his own journey as well throughout the film and I think finding the balance between the relationship with his mom and sister and within himself — what works for him medically and what is going to help him to continue to grow as a person. It’s funny because he gives advice to his sister, and when I was reading it I was thinking, “This is advice that he should take himself as well.” I think dealing with the conflict with his sister allows him to also self-reflect and say “I can get better, and I can have a support system.” It sort of ties back to Asian culture, how mental health is kind of pushed aside or viewed as shameful because it makes us look weak… and we have to hide that from the outside world. And it’s not like that. [This film] has a lot of moving parts, and we tackled a lot.
What would you want your viewers to take away from your film?
SD: For me, we’ve been playing the virtual film festival circuit for about a year now. And I’m getting direct messages from Asian Americans who have seen the film at various film festivals and they’re telling me that they feel seen. That they’ve never seen anything like this, that they connect to the material, that they connect to the characters, they connect to the world. Those messages make me so happy. That’s honestly all I can ask for in terms of how the audience can react.
RR: Just being able to say that our movie is both representative and inclusive is really important. As a performer, I want to see more people that I can relate to, just as an audience member and as an artist or creator. It’s inspiring, and it really does motivate you. Obviously, there are great artists on this planet, but it does mean something when you see someone of your culture, who is kind of like a piece of you, doing something great. It’s eye-opening and I hope that it galvanizes the community and brings everyone together and inspires people to create their own work.
This interview was conducted in-person at the 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on September 25, 2021. Photos courtesy of June Street Productions.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!