Sujata Day creates stories that are for us, by us, and for everyone else too — and she still manages to somehow rest? The Indian-American Mash-Up (she/her) is a performer, creator, writer, and director, previously known for her starring role as CeCe in Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and three seasons on HBO’s Insecure. She produced the short film Cowboy and Indian and also directs the series This Is My Story, which features LeVar Burton narrating real life experiences of racism. Sujata sat down with The Mash-Up Americans to talk about the adventure of launching of her debut award-winning feature film, Definition Please during the pandemic— and how she important it is to SLEEP!
You premiered your first feature film, Definition Please, which you wrote, directed, and starred in, in the beginning of the pandemic. What was that like?
Yeah, we were all set to premiere in late April 2020 – in-person, live theatres in front of an audience at two film festivals. And then of course, middle of March, everything shut down. The festivals didn’t know what they were going to do. I started feeling pretty down about it. But I had such a great experience at Bentonville Film Festival with my first virtual film festival format, so I continued to go to virtual festivals. We went to CAAMFest in San Francisco, and won Best Feature Film there, which was great. The Pennsylvania film festivals we went to in November were really exciting because I shot the movie in my hometown of Greensburg, Pa.
I do believe it was a good decision to go the virtual film festival route. I feel like there are a couple people out there that are telling filmmakers to not do the virtual film festivals and I’m here to tell you that you should do them. Because who knows when film festivals will be live again. I don’t think that’s anytime soon.
What’s some of the feedback you’ve gotten about Definition Please that’s made an impression on you?
I made this movie for a specific demographic and to see that demographic respond to it in the way that I wanted them to has been so fulfilling. And to have the response not stick to that demographic has been very surprising. [laughs] You know, when an old white man in Iowa likes the movie, you’re like, “What? You do? Okay!” So that’s been really fun.
As I’ve been inspired by my friends and those who have come before me, like Justin Chon and Issa Rae and Matthew Cherry, and people I’ve worked with before, I want to in turn inspire the next generation of filmmakers. And a lot of these people that I’ve been talking to, who’ve seen the movie, were saying, “I actually went back to writing my thing that I had put away, or it inspired me to realize that my story is also important, and that it belongs out there. And I always say, no matter how specific your story is, I want to see it, you know, I want to see the story of a brown, gay Indian kid living in Kentucky. Where’s that story? I really hope that I inspire people to write their own stories and put them out there, because I’m sick of all the stories coming out of Hollywood, they’re all the same thing. And I’m not interested in watching them.
How did you approach writing Definition Please?
So when I write, it always comes from a place of something real that has happened. It’s usually just a snippet of something real, and then I fictionalize it from that point forward. So for example, this movie was inspired by me winning my fourth grade spelling bee. And then going on to regionals and losing in the first round by misspelling the word radish. And from that point forward, I was watching the ESPN national spelling bees, and kept realizing that the majority of the winners seem to be South Asian American. And I became fascinated with these kids. To the extent that when I was in my sketch writing class in 2015, I wrote a sketch with the premise that one of these spelling bee champions becomes a loser. If you google the spelling bee champions, they are far from losers. They’re doing great things. They’re winning the World Poker Tour Championships, they’re working at NASA… And so I took that kind of germ of an idea to write the feature script, and I answered the question, “What are the reasons that this former spelling bee champion is now a loser and still living at home, tutoring kids in her neighborhood when she should be on to bigger and better things?” And I decided that those answers were in her relationships — with her family, with her mom, with her estranged brother, and how that all plays out.
This movie was inspired by me winning my fourth grade spelling bee. And then losing at regionals when I misspelled the word radish.
As a writer, I’m very interested in specifics and what each character likes or dislikes, what they eat, what they do, how they wake up in the morning — what do their sheets look like? So I just got those specifics in there. I wasn’t like, “Oh, this is about representation. This is about female empowerment.” No, it was just like a script that I wrote that came out of me. And in the end it happened to be about all those things. As I was writing the script, I was like, “Hey, I like Masala Lay’s chips. I’m gonna put that in there. I like Thums Up Cola. I’m gonna put that in there!”
What’s your take on assumptions that your work is autobiographical?
I think that’s the assumption with a lot of first-time projects from filmmakers in general. I don’t think that speaks specifically to Asian Americans or people of color. When I was part of Awkward Black Girl, people were like, “Oh, she’s an awkward Black girl,” about Issa, when she’s actually very confident and cool. I’m not offended when people think it’s autobiographical. I’m like, No, you know, it’s personal. There are a couple real things in there. You know, I love chips. I’m a snacker. [laughs] Every first project is a thing that the person kind of needs to get out of the way, to allow the other stories to flow through. I feel like Definition Please was the thing that I had to get out there before I could move on to my other projects.
The film explores how mental health impacts the characters’ relationships. How was mental health talked about in the community you grew up in?
I mean, I grew up in a very white suburb in Pennsylvania, Westmoreland County. And I will say I had an amazing childhood. I loved growing up there. I have a bunch of friends from there that I still talk to – a lot of my friends from childhood, middle school, high school, were actually involved with the film. I was shooting it at my best friend’s parents’ house, I was shooting at the tree house, my production designer went to school with me. There was also this really great Indian American community in that area as well, because there are three temples in the Pittsburgh region. And so on the weekends, I was hanging out with my Indian friends, and I was going to dance classes at the temple and I was going to Hindu summer camp, I was going to all these Indian parties with my parents.
And it was within that specific community, where I saw mental health was not being talked about. And I noticed it among a lot of us, where we were pushed towards academic excellence. We’d be in ninth grade, and someone would run away from home. And their parents would be like, “We don’t know why Anand would run away from home, you know, we give him everything he needs. He’s got food and shelter,” and me and the other kids would be like, “Dude, he’s totally stressed out about PSATs, or trying to get into pre-college programs that you are trying to force him to go to,” and I noticed that this kept happening.
Even through college, I went to Case Western, which is a very science-oriented school, and I was studying engineering, and there would be suicides, you know, just off the top of dorm buildings. And it was because we were taking five physics classes per semester. And so I just saw a lot of this silence around mental health and mental illness. And I have extended family with mental illness. So that was a thing I really wanted to touch on, especially in terms of an immigrant family, where this wouldn’t be talked about very much. And I wanted to focus on, obviously Sonny, and how he dealt with his mental illness, but also focus on the people around him, and how Jaya reacts to it, how Monica reacts to it. So that was really important for me to portray in an authentic and grounded way.
Growing up, were there any family words of wisdom that you find yourself drawing on now?
Well, something that my mom has always focused on is relaxing. Every phone call that I’ve ever had with her is, “Are you taking the time to just relax? Are you resting?” And I have really taken that to heart, even pre-quarantine. During the shoot, we didn’t have a lot of time, we were shooting 12-hour days. And something that is very important to me is getting my eight or nine hours of sleep every night. And so I would get out of the 12-hour shoot, and I would be reading over my lines, or my shot list, or even be on the phone with investors and making sure money was coming into the account for the film. But I would always, always, always make sure to get my minimum eight hours of sleep. And that is something that I have never compromised on. And I think that’s something that was instilled in me through my mom, who really feels that rest and relaxation is important.
I still get my work done. I have written scripts, I have written pitches, I can do all my Zoom meetings and auditions, but I make sure to get my sleep.
This is hugely inspirational! Sleep! Do you have other rituals that are especially important to you?
Every morning, I make a huge pot of chai without the milk, so that I can drink the chai all day long. I didn’t actually didn’t learn it at home, but from an auntie and uncle in Los Angeles. So when I go back home, I make the chai for my parents, and you know, I grate in the fresh ginger, and they’re very impressed. When I go to bed at night, I think about the pot of chai I’m going to make in the morning, and that makes me happy.
Despite everything, you’ve had a huge year. What advice would you give to other early filmmakers?
If you’re a creator, you should be creating right now. I’m watching these hysterical videos on TikTok of people just dancing with their parents. There’s really no excuse anymore. I’m watching these great IG Live videos… YouTube videos… Twitter videos, and it’s getting me through the quarantine. Even if you feel like oh, well, I can’t shoot this or I can’t get a cast and crew together, write something that you can shoot. And just do it. I mean, there was a video of a girl who pretended to be working at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping and picked up that phone call. And I was dying. I was like, yeah, this is what you should be doing — take whatever’s out in the zeitgeist and make your own video.
Put something out there, even if it’s not the best work. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Like what did Sarah Cooper do? She took what was happening and made it her own. And now she’s got a Netflix special. Never put all your hopes and wishes into one project. I have ten things going at the same time right now, and I’m really excited about the next thing and the next thing. Put something out there, even if it’s not the best work. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and do the next thing and shoot the next thing. So I would say, get out there and shoot it. Just do it, get your movie out there, and then move on to your next project.
I also think we need to be strong as we move past this time period, and learn about ourselves, which I think we’ve all been doing – learn about what’s important to us, who is important to us, and bring all of that into our work, and that’s what I’ll be doing moving forward.