In feature film Definition Please, a young Indian American woman who won the National Spelling Bee as a child, her ill mother, and her estranged brother come together for a week in Greensburg, PA, to celebrate their father’s first death anniversary. The young woman, Monica Chowdry (played by Sujata Day), lives in her parents’ home in order to care for her mother (played by Anna Khaja); although she wants to go to Cleveland to take up a job in clinical research, she is torn between duty to her family and pursuing her independent life.
Monica now spends her time coaching wannabe spelling bee champions for their upcoming contests and resisting their overly ambitious mothers. We learn her brother, Sunny/Dada (played by Ritesh Rajan), has untreated bipolar disorder and is unpredictable and occasionally violent in his interactions with the family. Her best friend is a Latinx bartender who urges her to follow her dreams and to leave town.
The film explores the pressures on immigrant children to be perfect and movingly depicts the complicated family dynamics. The brother and sister love each other, and in their childhood, he always indulged and protected his little sister. Their adult lives are stressful because neither understands how mental illness affects Sunny nor his struggles with the model minority expectations of his family and community.
The film avoids stereotypical portrayals of South Asian family life. No parents pushing for arranged marriage, no elaborate discussions of food, and no gossiping aunties. Day satirizes these standard tropes of Indian cinema. When Sunny teases Monica about her “boyfriend,” an Asian American man (Jake Choi) from her school days, the mother quips “If you get pregnant, don’t get an abortion.” This exchange overturns the usual narrative line of sexual control of daughters.
In another scene, the film satirizes song and dance numbers in Bollywood cinema as the siblings put on a variety show in their garage to entertain their mother who they believe is terminally ill. The scene brilliantly pokes fun at the Bollywood genre while staging the familial tensions, the infantilizing of the adult siblings, and the emotionally manipulative mother.
Day’s portrayal of South Asian immigrant life is humorous from scenes involving community gatherings to the trip to an Indian store to buy mangoes. Her critique of racialized American society shows solidarity amongst communities of color and their struggles with white supremacist culture.
However, the major scene depicting white racism is an unconvincing fight between tween girls where a caricatured white girl bullies a meek Indian girl. Racism is not child’s play, and making young girls carry the burden of standing in for American society as a whole is not effective.
The film’s significant achievement is the portrayal of mental illness and its impact on the family. South Asian families do not acknowledge mental illness as they fear stigma. In their bid to appear successful, they often cover up real struggles of individuals and families as they grapple with mental health issues. The Chowdrys would rather be known for their Spelling bee champion than for their son who left home because he got no support for his bipolar disorder from his parents. Ritesh Rajan’s portrayal of Sunny’s breakdown and resistance to treatment is authentic. The film is definitely worth watching for its skillful weaving of laughter, tears, and sentimental moments.
Definition Please plays at SAAFF. See the SAAFF website and program page for details.