'Definition Please' Reimagines How South Asian Americans Are Portrayed Onscreen

Directed by Sujata Day

Starring Sujata Day, Anna Khaja, Ritesh Rajan, Lalaine

BY Alisha MughalPublished Jan 21, 2022

The cure for especially dry feet is this: before bed, rub them with Vaseline, then put on a pair of woolly socks. This is what Jaya (Anna Khaja), the matriarch of a small, fractured family does, with all the minute diligence we expect of South Asian mothers, in the first act of Sujata Day's directorial debut Definition Please. She then locks her bedroom door out of fear her eldest son, Sonny (Ritesh Rajan), might burst through it at some point in the night. Sonny has bipolar disorder and sometimes becomes frighteningly violent during a low episode. 

This scene is swift, lasting no longer than a few seconds, but its juxtaposition of tones conveys something special. As it lays groundwork we might find familiar, Definition Please delicately bucks our expectations of how first-generation South Asian people are portrayed in film, and also the dynamic of their family relationships. Finding humour in intergenerational trauma, Definition Please redefines how the South Asian American experience is portrayed onscreen.

Day writes, directs, and stars in this comedic drama. She plays Monica, a 20-something-year-old who's still living in the shadow of winning a national spelling bee as a child. Known throughout her town as the champion, she floats through it in a cloud of weed smoke, tutoring other little girls to be as intelligent as she is. The film opens with Monica receiving a dream job offer — one she ought to be excited about and eagerly accept, but instead she finds herself feeling deeply ambivalent about it. Monica lives at home and cares for her mother, Jaya, with whom she has a sweet, close relationship. Often at night, Monica climbs into bed with Jaya and the two talk in hesitant, roundabout terms about Jaya's eventual passing, with Jaya testing Monica's memory of where the family gold is hidden. 

This calm, loving mother-daughter routine is punctured the week of the anniversary of Monica's father's death, when her estranged older brother Sonny shows up from L.A. Jaya has called him, as she wants desperately for Monica and Sonny to get along. But fear of Sonny's potential violence constrains much of the love Monica has for him. When the siblings learn of Jaya's worsening health, and Jaya pleads for them to reconcile their differences, the film tests whether love can untangle the web of trauma the brother and sister share, and whether their intuitive love can bring about long-overdue conversations.

Thanks to films (great as they are) like Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, there is a definite stereotype of the South Asian immigrant mother that's laid deep roots within Western imaginations. She is stalwart as she waves around a rolling pin, overbearing as she nags and harps, and fusses over a daughter who doesn't care to get married yet. In comparison to this fussy mother, Definition Please's matriarch is a breath of fresh air in the most interesting way.

The film, opening upon a Garden State-esque suburbia, slowly creeps into a home whose incense-scented air suffuses my lungs. We expect the uppityness of Bend It's Mrs. Bhamra when the camera closes in on Jaya on a couch in front of the TV. Instead, Day gives us the fragile beauty of Khaja, whose Jaya reaches for her cup of tea with an elegance that South Asian mothers are seldom depicted as having, but which many in real life possess and own with a knowing air. Jaya is sick, yes, and jaw-droppingly stunning, but she also loves life, and has a roaring sense of humour that she wishes Monica would share. She touches her daughter with luxuriant delight, demanding a gaal se gaal every night, where mother and daughter touch cheeks as goodnight. Noticeable in its absence, and therefore tear-wrenchingly fresh, is Jaya's lack of pressure upon Monica. Monica is never told she needs to marry, except for once by an aunty. Jaya hardly even urges Monica to get a better or more lucrative job, and instead seems to wait for Monica to come to this realization on her own. Day fleshes Jaya out to be three-dimensional, to have desires and expressions that are her own, and Khaja personifies these with — at times heartbreaking, at other times hilarious — deftness. Mostly, Jaya wants for her two children to get along, but she also has her own friends and a life outside of her children, evidenced by the community of South Asian people who love and adore Jaya. 

Monica, meanwhile, is deathly worried her mother will pass away. She deeply misses her late father, who doled his praise upon her as a child for her academic excellence. This worry is what stalls Monica in her childhood home, along with her childhood best friend Krista (Lalaine). What's most unique and interesting about Day's Monica is that she is a daughter who wants to take care of her parents — a revolutionary reversal of conventions, as South Asian children are frequently depicted as being at odds with their parents' expectations. Though this conflict occurs here, too, it's developed in such a subtle way that it preserves the integrity of the mother and doesn't humiliate her. 

Through Jaya and Monica's uniqueness, the story convincingly explores and excavates family obligations in a nuanced and downright new way. It's not family that's holding Monica back — it's fear and trauma. Day shows us that some kids want to take care of their parents, not out of their obligation, but because they genuinely love them. Monica's relationship with her mother fulfils her, but there is also more she can have in life, the film says.

The men in Definition Please are similarly multifaceted. Sonny's internal conflict evolves with the suspense of a thriller, as he deals with expectations of masculinity and buckles under the weight of his unexpressed emotions, lashing out long-repressed accusations at his mother and late father. In one poignant scene, Jaya tells Sonny that she and his father didn't know better, and she asks him to forgive his parents for the wrongs they committed years ago. Through the family's late patriarch, Day upturns the trope of the withholding, sage and self-sacrificing South Asian father (think of the roles played by Irrfan Khan), undergirding his doting kindness with a tragically familiar viciousness. Day assigns Sonny the mammoth task of undoing circles of abuse, all with the understanding that it is terribly unfair that this psychological work should, and often does, fall on a single person. 

Family in Definition Please is something to be strengthened. Day furthers the conversation when it comes to South Asian families by asking what happens when you have a South Asian family where obligation and race are taken for granted. We see a cohesive family fracturing under intergenerational trauma — a family that has recognized there is work to be done, and has already done some work, but knows there is more to be done. This film opens where most films of its ilk have ended: it looks at how trauma lingers into adulthood. 

Sujata Day explores all the complexity and nuance a South Asian family can contain, and thereby creates a film that is original and needed. With hilarious turns and wrenching drama, Day shows a deft understanding of how a cohesive tale is told. Definition Please is certainly not perfect — some transitions are a bit clunky — but the narrative is strong and the performances great. This touching debut film is a breath of fresh air full of beautiful people. It will make audiences want to hug their family and go dust off their carrom board.

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