In writer-director Sujata Day’s debut feature Definition Please, lead character Monica Chowdry is a college grad who still lives at home with her mother. A former national spelling bee champion, she now finds herself tutoring a new generation of spelling champion hopefuls in her hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Definition Please, a world premiere at the 2020 Bentonville Film Festival, is the kind of movie that will be familiar to diehard Bollywood fans. All the staples are there: a reverence for Indian mothers and the family unit, musical numbers, commentary on a specific societal ill, name-checking of Hindu gods and an overall feel-good tone. And of course this includes the genre-transcendent “masala” blend of comedy, romance, drama and suspense.
But thankfully actor (Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, Insecure) and now first-time writer-director Day doesn’t simply regurgitate these popular tropes and call it a day. Instead, she offers up a quietly inventive take on Bollywood conventions — as well as the Bengali soap tradition — that fits quite comfortably in the category of American indie cinema.
Monica is happy enough — she has her longtime best friend Krista (Lalaine), a close relationship with her widowed mother Jaya (Anna Khaja) and a crop of kids that she loves to tutor — but she is also low-key embarrassed that she’s not the successful “doctor, lawyer or engineer” that immigrant parents typically encourage their American-born children to become. Yet when a dream job offer in Cleveland comes her way, she finds herself hesitant to take it. Eventually we discover that Monica’s strained relationship with her older brother (Ritesh Rajan), who has just returned home for their father’s one-year memorial, is a big part of the puzzle she has to solve to be able to move forward in her life.
Definition Please has a charm and sense of familial longing that recalls both this year’s indie VOD standout Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn, and the diasporic resonance of the 1995 Bollywood megahit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge from director Aditya Chopra. And it pairs nicely with the 2020 Netflix release of Sam Rega’s documentary Spelling the Dream, which profiles a handful of real-life spelling bee champs like the fictional Monica, and explains how South Asian-American kids have come to dominate the contest over the last few decades.
With its indie verve, raucous female gaze, comedic throughline and references to Indian cinema traditions, Definition Please sets out to accomplish a lot in terms of style and substance. Sometimes this slows down the storytelling to an uncomfortable pace, the pic finding its rhythm pretty late in game. One wishes for more fluidity and movement in the cinematography and camerawork throughout; these elements often register with a staleness that mirrors Monica’s life.
But Day and Rajan’s sibling chemistry works, and each impresses with individual range as a performer. Khaja is well cast as their compassionate mother — she moves quite adeptly between comedy and drama — and Sonal Shah’s comedic turn as her best friend Dr. Ali stands out despite her appearance in only a few scenes.
It is clear that Day — a Pittsburg native born to Bengali Indian immigrants with the surname DeChoudhury — understands the rules of the genres she’s referencing, and she wants to reshape them into something bespoke. To accomplish this, she disassembles the genre components reminiscent of classic Bollywood flicks and Leena Gangopadhyay’s Bengali soap operas and effectively reassembles them within an American-born Desi context. Definition Please modernizes these routine touchstones and translates them into something that doesn’t need to sacrifice the specificity of the Chowdrys’ story to make it feel American or universal.
For example, Day flips the script on “item numbers,” the over-the-top lip synced musical performances that often appear in Bollywood flicks. There are several moments when, seemingly out of nowhere, the camera ogles the fit bodies of attractive men — like Ronnie (Jake Choi), the former classmate who reveals he has crushed on Monica since middle school, or Dr. Chiou (Tim Chiou), who is only in the story to treat her mother after an accident. These seemingly random camera pans are usually reserved for scantily clad women in mainstream Bollywood movies, but here, through the prism of Monica’s POV, it’s the men who are served up as fine cuts of meat.
It’s also refreshing to see an Indian-American woman protagonist who is both free from repressive moral norms and invested in her cultural heritage. Monica smokes joints in a minivan as she travels to spelling drills and enjoys a casual hook-up. We also see her engaged in the religious traditions associated with her father’s one-year memorial and being the dutiful daughter who takes care of her ailing mother. Monica mostly does what she wants and she doesn’t explain or apologize; it’s invigorating to see a movie that doesn’t frame her sense of self as a contradiction to her ethnicity and culture.
When it comes to Monica and Sonny’s tense relationship as baby sister and big brother, the movie takes on a darker tone. We learn that Sonny suffers from untreated bipolar disorder symptoms, and Monica rails against the way his condition has routinely disrupted her life since she was young. Fortunately the script avoids sensationalizing mental illness for cheap entertainment. Ritesh delivers a nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder as an Indian-American man in a community where mental illness is too often stigmatized and ignored.
Just as Monica has to break through her inertia, Definition Please reminds us that so, too, do our definitions of what constitutes original American indie cinema. People with a limited knowledge of the cinematic tropes and traditions Day is playing with here might lack the points of reference needed to see what’s happening in the bones of this flick, and therefore miss its juice. But the audiences for whom this film was made, or the people willing to educate themselves, will likely experience welcome relief. After all, for far too long there have been too few Monica Chowdrys onscreen — and Days behind the camera — and this movie makes a compelling case for why there ought to be more.
Venue: 2020 Bentonville Film Festival
Cast: Sujata Day, Ritesh Rajan, Anna Khaja, Jake Choi, Lalaine, Kunal Dudheker, Sunkrish Bala, Esha Chundru, Meera Simhan, Sonal Shah, Tim Chiou, Parvesh Cheena
Production companies: ATAJUS Productions, June Street Productions, Datari Turner Productions
Writer-Director: Sujata Day
Producers: Sujata Day, Cameron Fife, Datari Turner
Executive producers: Rey Cuerdo, Hiren C. Surti, Ahmad Cory Jubran, Dan Evans III, Lamont Magee
Cinematography: Brooks Ludwick
Editor: Niles Howard, Emilie Aubrey
Production designer: Kaitlin McHugh
Wardrobe: Rachel Vallozzi
Original Music: Amanda Jones