Definition Please Stars Talk Highlighting Mental Health Struggles Through A South Asian Lens

Insecure actress Sujata Day made a strong directorial debut in Definition Please, a dramedy about a former spelling bee champion who deals with familial struggles in her adulthood. The independent feature that recently became a Netflix movie was written by and stars Day, as well as features a powerful storyline about mental health from a South Asian lens. 

Sujata Day and her co-star Ritesh Rajan spoke to CinemaBlend’s Law Sharma about the mental health discussion in Definition Please, and there was clearly some real care placed in this element of the story. Rajan plays Sonny, who is the estranged older brother of Day’s Monica and is living with untreated bipolar disorder. Day spoke to the topic with these words:  

I think in a lot of previous movies and television shows, [Hollywood] likes to sensationalize mental health in general. It's for the drama of the moment. We even had a note from an early executive who looked at the film saying maybe Sonny should kill Jaya in that moment and I was like ‘Wait, what?’ That’s a whole other movie. Sonny is not going to kill Jaya in this movie, that’s ridiculous and I did not take that note. But, that is an example of sensationalizing mental illness and I just wasn’t going to do that and I wanted to pull my personal experience with mental health in my immediate extended family and my friends growing up from middle school to high school to college. I noticed how much mental health was just part of their daily lives and I wanted to portray how it affected the people that they love.

Day pulled back the curtain a bit during the interview, sharing that one of the executives who looked at Definition Please recommended that Sonny go as far as killing his mother due to the storyline about his mental illness. Sujata Day thankfully stood her ground creatively and brought a grounded portrayal of how a family might struggle with a member with bipolar disorder, especially when their instincts are to ignore and hide it. Ritesh Rajan added this: 

Specifically for us, we wanted to make sure that the way that mental health was portrayed, or used as a vehicle for the character, was specific and more importantly specific within a South Asian lens. Sujata and I spoke at length about what it means to have bipolar disorder, but then what does it mean to be bipolar in a South Asian family? And how do your parents react? How do your siblings react, your friends, cousins, and the broader question of mental health within the Asian community. How it's looked upon as shameful [and because] it's not tangible [there's a belief] we gotta just sweep it under the rug. There's no easy treatment. You can't just take Advil and fix it. And what that pressure, that tension, that shame – how does that all manifest among the relationships between the family members?

Per the South Asian Public Health Association, one in five U.S. South Asians report experiencing a mood or anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Plus, U.S. South Asians often express a greater stigma toward mental health topics than other groups, often extending to family and biological explanations of mental illness that can increase the level of stigma. 

Along with Definition Please highlighting mental health from a South Asian lens with Anna Khaja’s Jaya, Sujata Day also spoke to CinemaBlend about purposefully developing a “cool mom” character to combat stereotypes about South Asian mothers. She said that she’d read multiple scripts of South Asian parents going through the exact same motions. She wanted to steer away from it, not only to change things up, but to base it on parts of her mother and the aunties she grew up with. 

The movie was made with the help of Ava DuVernay’s production company ARRAY, and is now available to stream with a Netflix subscription. It’s exciting to see more great South Asian characters make their way to movies and television as of late, and Definition Please comes from an especially authentic place. 

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

YA genre tribute. Horror May Queen. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.