Definition Please Director Shares Her Approach To Developing A South Asian Mom Character That Was Not A Stereotype

While we’ve seen more representation of great South Asian characters in movies and television in the past decade than ever before, a triple-threat writer/director/actor debut like Sujata Day’s Definition Please remains a rarity and magic trick in Hollywood. The Insecure actress put out her first feature film in 2020 with the intention to depict Indian American characters outside the stereotypical. And this expanded to the development of a South Asian mom character.

CinemaBlend’s own Law Sharma spoke to Sujata Day about Definition Please now that the independent film is available to stream with a Netflix subscription. One particularly noticeable deviation from the typical depiction of Indian-American families is the mother of Day’s Monica, who becomes sick during the film. Day shared her thoughts on penning a “cool” mom for the movie: 

The cool mom was very intentional for me. I knew going into the film I wanted this mom to be something that we’ve never seen before on screen. Being out in Hollywood for a while, I’ve gotten a lot of auditions, I’ve gotten a lot of scripts to read and every single time the parents go through the same motions of not approving of what their kids are doing, wanting them to be doctors and engineers and wanting them to have an arranged marriage and all this trope-y stuff that I steered away from this character. It was really, really fun to craft Jaya because I was basing it on not only parts of my mother, but just the aunties I grew up with in my community. There were a lot of aunties, and they’re all cool!

When stories use the same stereotypes and tropes over and over, they can become harmful and heavily influence the way in which the public views a culture. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of disapproving Indian parents, but Sujata Day wanted to depict women like her mother and aunties who did not fit into the mold that many Hollywood productions have established. She continued:

I mean [my aunties] have a WhatsApp group sharing the film and they shared it to the aunties in Chicago and the aunties in Houston and I was like ‘Oh, this is like a grassroots marketing campaign pushed by my Pittsburgh aunties. [laughs] I wanted to really show the women that I grew up with that were amazing and allowed us to thrive in whatever passions that we had and supported us in every way. The character of Jaya was a love letter to those aunties and when I reached out to Anna Khaja, who played that role, she read the script and wrote back [and said] ‘I’ve never auditioned for any character like this before’ and said yes.

Not only did the filmmaker bring something new to the table with Anna Khaja’s Jaya, she also created a new opportunity for the actress to play a type of role that she'd ever been able to try. This is why representation behind the scenes matters so much! 

The film, which is on the 2022 Netflix movie schedule, is about a former spelling bee champion who is having a rough time living up to her potential as an adult. When her mother get sick, her estranged brother, Sonny (played by Ritesh Rajan), enters the picture to help take care of her. The flick not only has a depiction of an Indian-American family that steers away from tropes, it's also movie that honestly discusses the struggles that come with mental illness, as Sonny lives with bipolar disorder. 

Definition Please was made with the help of Ava DuVernay’s production company ARRAY. The Selma filmmaker has additionally opened doors for the production of 2020 drama Funny Boy from Indian-Canadian writer/director Deepa Mehta and 2021’s Donkeyhead from Indian-Canadian writer/director Agam Darshi. It’s great to see more diverse filmmakers taking the helm with movies like Sujata Day's to bring more authentic stories to the screen and push back against a cycle of stereotypes in movies and television. 

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.