Many winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee go on to great things. Maybe they work at NASA, received multiple degrees, or they build robots. They might even be working on the COVID-19 vaccine right now. But for Monica Chowdry, the fame she enjoyed as a child after winning the spelling bee quickly dissipated.
Monica, the main character in Sujata Day’s new film, “Definition Please,” instead spends her days caring for her sick mother and estranged brother. She spends her nights completing paint-by-numbers in a treehouse.
Sahan Journal spoke with Day, who also plays Monica, about Monica’s suburban South Asian family and Day’s personal experiences with the spelling bee. Day is a filmmaker and actress best known for her roles in “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” and “Insecure.”
Now in its 11th and perhaps most difficult year, the Twin Cities Film Fest is hosting an online version of its premieres during the 10-day festival. Viewers can watch more than 70 films with an All Access streaming pass for $50. Passes can be purchased on the film festival’s website. Viewers can also purchase individual films to stream for a limited time between October 22–31. Some Twin Cities Film Fest members, donors, and sponsors will be able to watch a select number of films in-person at the Showplace ICON in St. Louis Park.
Each year, the Twin Cities Film Fest identifies a social justice case to highlight in a series of films calling attention to that specific social issue. This year’s theme is affordable living and the film series includes stories about housing, healthcare, childcare, and eldercare.
“Definition Please” will be shown at the Twin Cities Film Fest during a special screening October 26. The film will also be available to stream online.
How did “Definition Please” come to be?
I won my class spelling bee in fourth grade, which sounds like a big deal. But it wasn’t, because there were only 10 people in my entire class. And then I went on to regionals, and I lost in the first round on the word “radish.” I spelled it with two D’s and I was devastated. After that experience, I got into watching the spelling bees that would air on ESPN, and I noticed that almost every year a South Asian American kid would win.
Fast forward to 2015. I was in the Upright Citizens Brigade sketch writing class, and one of my sketches was titled “Where Are They Now: Spelling Bee Winners.” If you Google the spelling bee winners, you notice that they are all doing phenomenal things. They have triple PhD’s. They’re probably working on the COVID-19 vaccine right now. They’re designing robots or working at NASA. But in my four-page sketch, one of the spelling bee winners turns out to be a complete loser.
I started writing the feature film version of “Definition Please” based on that four-page sketch idea, taking that concept, and then exploring why she hasn’t been successful in her life. I decided on family dynamics, especially her relationship with her estranged brother, and when it comes to health care for their sick mom.
I’m going to assume a film like “Definition Please” has probably not been featured here. What does that mean to you?
To be honest, I’m from a tiny white suburb outside of Pittsburgh, called Greensburg, an hour east of the city. We filmed “Definition Please” in this tiny white suburb, and the entire community got behind it. It was so lovely to watch. I had been talking about how I’ve had such an amazing childhood growing up outside of Pittsburgh, which has so many Midwestern values.
How might a film like “Definition Please” translate in the Midwest? And, more specifically, the Midwestern South Asian community?
Basically, I went to a high school, middle school with all white kids. But then we had two temples in Pittsburgh. So, on the weekends, I would hang out with all my Indian friends, and go to dance class at the temple, and summer camps. And so I actually was really excited that a festival like Twin Cities Film Fest reached out because I did make this film for a universal audience. The characters are all Asian American. But the crux of the story is something that every single American has gone through or can identify with.
I’m always trying to answer the question: When’s the first time you saw yourself in a film or a television show? The people that have watched it so far have been young, South Asian American, and women. They write back to me, and they say, “Wow, I’ve actually never seen this version of my life.” And they connect to it so well, so deeply.
The film fest identifies a social justice cause each year. This year it’s “affordable living,” which includes housing, healthcare, childcare, and eldercare. How does “Definition Please” fit into that theme, and in what ways might it offer something unexpected?
In terms of affordable living, it’s just about a normal family, who is middle class, living in a suburb of Pennsylvania. And I feel like a lot of people will be able to relate to that, whether you’re Asian American or not. On the flipside, with Twin Cities Film Fest and lifting voices of female filmmakers of color. I mean, that’s exactly what I am. And my movie is very much with the female gaze in mind from this perspective that you’ve never seen before.
I also grew up with a mom who was very liberal and cool. And that is not often seen on screen in terms of South Asian American moms. When Anna Khaja, who plays Monica’s mom Jaya, first read the script, she called me and said: “Yes, of course, I’ll play this role. I’ve never read a role like this.” And that’s one of my favorite relationships in the film, because you can see the love and the trust between mother and daughter. You watch Jaya grow. And you notice how Monica loves her so much. She stays home to care for her even though she has opportunities elsewhere. But she has this relationship with a mother that’s full of love and respect. So it was really important for me to show a mother-daughter relationship that was not conflicted.
Viewers can stream “Definition Please” on October 26 during the Twin Cities Film Fest.