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New film dismantles South Asian stereotypes tied to spelling bee, mental health

84 percent of recent spelling bee winners came from Indian American families, but director Sujata Day says, "I wanted to depict an Indian family that isn't out of the box."
Sujata Day, left, and Ritesh Rajan in a scene from "Definition Please."
Sujata Day, left, and Ritesh Rajan in a scene from "Definition Please."June Productions

In the opening moments of “Definition Please,” a young Monica Chowdry wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2005. Now, 15 years later, she tutors prospective young spellers and lives with her mother, Jaya, who still joyously watches old news segments celebrating her daughter’s victory.

Through this, the film juxtaposes the model minority myth associated with the South Asian diaspora, specifically when it comes to achievements like winning a spelling bee and the success that’s bound to follow.

As Monica reconnects with her estranged brother Sonny on the one-year death anniversary of their father, the 90-minute drama also tackles loss and identity with an acute, empathetic focus on the still-taboo topic of mental health.

Sujata Day, best-known for her work as Sarah in the HBO comedy “Insecure,” wrote, directed and stars in the movie.

It will make rounds at the film festival circuit as part of Asian CineVision’s Asian American International Film Festival from Oct. 9-10 and it is the centerpiece for the Center for Asian American Media’s Fest Forward on Oct. 17. The film also stars Ritesh Rajan, Anna Khaja, Jake Choi, Lalaine, Sonal Shah, Sunkrish Bala and Parvesh Cheena.

Emphasis on mental health

“Definition Please” is a catalyst for open discussions about mental health for audiences of the diaspora and beyond.

“I really wanted to start a conversation,” Day told NBC Asian America. “There is always chatter [in the South Asian communities] of successes, whether it was a second master’s degree or med school or a Wall Street job. No one talked about their failures, stresses, second chances or even therapy.”

In the film, Monica and her mother's reunion with Sonny leads to the unraveling of long-simmering truths, including Sonny’s battle with mental illness based on his childhood trauma. As a gym trainer, he has followed an untraditional career path and often feels like a screw-up deep down.

Sujata Day and Ritesh Rajan in a still from "Definition Please."
Sujata Day and Ritesh Rajan in a still from "Definition Please."Kaitlin McHugh

“South Asian kids are often expected to go into fields like math, science, law, or engineering,” Day said. “So much pressure at such a young age can be harmful.”

The film speaks to certain detrimental realities on mental health while trying to meet familial or societal demands. The Journal of American College Health published a study which noted that Asian American students are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than white or Black students.

The characters in the film deal in disparate ways with their tensions. Monica and Jaya encourage Sonny in their own ways to seek help but he is reluctant to even admit there is a problem, which addresses the fact that Asian Americans consistently underutilize mental health services because of stigma, misconceptions of Western treatment, and cultural interpretations of mental health problems, according to a research study published in the NCBI.

“The advantage of both my parents being doctors was that I was able to discuss ideas and personal experiences with them,” Rajan said about preparing for and doing justice to Sonny’s illness. “I consulted heavily with a friend of mine who is a physiatrist about his experiences. I asked how patients differed if they had support from the family, things of that nature.”

Subverting the conventional narrative

The film uses the spelling bee as a storytelling device to propel an original narrative that aims to subvert stereotypes associated with Indian Americans, who have emerged as groundbreaking winners over the years.

A study by New American Economy states that 84 percent, or 26 out of 31 of the most recent spelling bee winners, including those from years with multiple champions, came from Indian American families. The report goes on to cite examples of the successful careers of some of these winners.

Esha Chundru as a young Monica Chowdry in "Definition Please."
Esha Chundru as a young Monica Chowdry in "Definition Please."June Productions

Day — who grew up watching the spelling bee — came up with the concept of exploring the psyche of a winner with an ultimately inefficacious career in 2015 while at a UCB improv sketch-writing class.

In the years since, she developed this idea into a nuanced and full-fledged script that tackles the varying degree of importance of the Scripps National Spelling Bee for Indian immigrants through her character, as well as the students she teaches.

The need for authentic representation

“Definition Please” navigates the task of portraying the aspects of the Chowdry family’s hyphenated identities on-screen.

The characters are munching on local snacks like Masala Lays (a spicy Lays flavor originating in India) or drinking Thums Up, an Indian cola brand. Monica and Sonny visit Patel Bros. for grocery shopping, an Indian-American supermarket chain with 57 stores across the U.S.

Day said that all of this was written directly into the script. “These things are a part of my, and many South Asian folks’ day-to-day lives but it’s just that most people aren’t aware of it," she added. "I wanted to depict an Indian family that isn't actually out of the box but it's just that audiences haven't seen them on TV or film before."

This is a major driving force of this movie, to increase awareness of the desi (referring to immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) culture, whether it’s through small moments like the siblings playing thr Indian-origin tabletop game carrom or with weighty speeches like Jaya’s doctor lecturing her children about the sacrifices made by their parents.

Connecting with mainstream audiences

While the film acts as a love letter to the South Asian American community, its handling of the characters’ overcoming grief, self-doubt and barriers concerning mental health makes it instantly resonate with all audiences.

Day said that she made a film with these universal themes so that everyone can hook into it even if they are not brown.

“The beautiful thing is that this movie is about an Indian family but it’s an Indian American family, and ultimately such an American story,” Rajan added.