The Scripps National Spelling Bee is a goldmine for successful American South Asians. Many go on to become lawyers, doctors, and engineers— all classic career choices for those who want to avoid disappointing their parents. But what happens when a spelling bee champion just ends up totally average? This is the premise for Sujata Day’s debut feature film Definition Please.
Fifteen years after winning it all with the word “opsimath”, the now-adult Monica Chowdry (Sujata Day) still lives at home in Greensburg, Pennsylvania taking care of her sick mother Jaya (Anna Khaja) and tutoring young spelling bee hopefuls. Not only stuck in life, Monica is also too scared to make any change happen. Her life is comfortable, her mom is cool, and she spends her evenings smoking weed and painting in her childhood treehouse or at the bar with her best friend Krista (Lalaine)— even though she has a job offer as a clinical research lab technician in Ohio. Monica doesn’t want any change, but when her older brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) returns home for the anniversary of their father’s death, old tensions between the siblings flare up and the two begin to challenge each other.
Sujata Day brings an alluring take to directing. While the film follows the traditional path of a comedy sprinkled with drama, Day brings interesting visual aspects to the genre. One of Monica’s quirks is her ability to see words that define strangers. Each time this happens with words like ‘licentious’ and ‘callipygian’, the screen is washed with blue tones as Monica spells out the word and provides a definition, just as one would at a spelling bee. The music used throughout the film is also unique. Absent are the usual English pop or indie music, instead Day opts to use Indian songs to better suit the circumstances of the Chowdry family. The acting is also brilliant throughout Definition Please. Day, Rajan, and Khaja hit every comedic note while also being able to dig deep for more emotional scenes— but it is the screenplay that proves to be the best asset to this film.
Definition Please turns Asian-American stereotypes on their head. Tired of constantly auditioning for clichéd roles, Day took matters into her own hands by writing the stories she wanted to see herself. Yes, Definition Please features familiar traits of Indian-Americans but it also challenges the model minority myth. Monica isn’t the definition of success by South Asian standards, instead, she’s happy tutoring kids in spelling bee drills and putting the rest of her career on hold. Sonny also has a unique career path, selling fitness and nutrition products for what is probably an MLM. It also shifts the expectations placed on South Asian children. One of Monica’s spelling bee students Payal— played by newcomer Maya Kapoor, hates that her mother is forcing her into the spelling bee and rebels by purposefully misspelling words. Monica and Sonny’s mother Jaya is completely different than typical Indian mother characters. She is never strict with her children, laughing along with Monica and Sonny, but also expresses disappointment when they refuse to get along. At one point she even smokes weed with Monica in the treehouse, accidentally calling it “marinara” instead of marijuana.
The film also explores heavier South Asian stereotypes, such as the taboo surrounding mental health. While prevalent in their communities, many immigrants and first-generation South Asians shy away from talking about mental health issues. Part of the reason why Monica and Sonny’s relationship is so estranged is because of Sonny’s bipolar disorder diagnosis. Rajan plays Sonny as a happy, goofy man but his mood rapidly shifts to sadness and anger at the drop of a dime, striking fear into Monica and Jaya. Childhood bullying and abuse are explored as potential reasons for Sonny’s trauma. It is a difficult experience for the Chowdry family to discuss but instead of sweeping it under the rug, Jaya acknowledges that it is okay for Sonny to get help but neither she nor Monica can force him.
Definition Please challenges the usual South Asian stories told by Hollywood which are few and far between. South Asians are so much more than doctors, lawyers, and engineers. The film is personal to the South Asian community but also leaves room for people of outside cultures to enjoy and relate to the Chowdry family. Definition Please an American film that happens to feature South Asian characters. Through her film, Sujata Day urges other Asian artists to create the content that they want to see. You don’t have to wait for Hollywood to catch up with better roles, the films are better when we write them ourselves anyway.
Definition Please is yet to secure a release date
by Alina Faulds
Alina fell in love with film when her dad kept bringing home Will Ferrell movies from the 5 dollar bin at Walmart. Her tastes have evolved since then but she will always have a soft spot for that comedy crew. She is a history graduate from Carleton University, but she doesn’t like historical films. She would love to one day work as an archivist for the National Film Board of Canada and spends much of her time connecting to her Guyanese roots. You can find her chattering about movies on Twitter and Letterboxd.