My parents were born and raised in Kolkata, India, and experienced the golden age of Bengali cinema. They could see themselves in characters onscreen solving mysteries like Soumitra Chatterjee in “Feluda,” courting like legendary stars Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, and living everyday village life as seen through the poignant lens of Satyajit Ray.
As a first generation Bengali-American girl, I grew up with two different cultures in a suburban, Irish-Catholic neighborhood. I went to Catholic school for six years, but I also went to Hindu temple camp and spent most of my summer vacations in Kolkata. I speak fluent Bengali and slayed my AP English exam. I danced Bharatnatyam for over 10 years while taking ballet and hip-hop.
I watched a handful of Bollywood films growing up, but I didn’t speak or understand Hindi and couldn’t really connect to the stories. Something clicked when I saw “Bend It Like Beckham,” a delightful movie written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, starring the wonderful Parminder Nagra. The protagonist, Jess, looked like me. And more importantly, so did the writer-director. I realized for the first time I could be the lead in a movie and maybe even write and direct it, too.
A few years after “Bend It Like Beckham,” watching “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” with my friends blew my mind. We were Harold and Kumar, Harold and Kumar was us. Was Hollywood finally ready to break free from the usual stereotypes in film and cast South Asian American leads? Nope. Early in my career, I was auditioning to play the daughters and wives of terrorists, heavily-accented bit parts, and sari-clad submissive brides. Things have slowly changed over the past few years but not by much.
Somehow my invites for a seat at the table were getting lost in the mail. No one was offering me my dream role. I realized if I wanted to see myself represented onscreen, I would have to reenlight my own project. I adored character-driven indie films like “You Can Count on Me,” “Skeleton Twins,” “The Savages,” and anything by the Duplass brothers. Inspired by classically American movies like “Garden State” and “Good Will Hunting” — I set out to write, direct, produce and star in my own debut feature film, “Definition Please,” with a majority Asian American cast.
After racking up glowing reviews and numerous awards on the virtual film festival circuit, “Definition Please” was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s Array and is currently streaming on Netflix.
Industry folks tend to gloss over or even drop the “American” bit of AAPI heritage month and lump Asian and Asian American content into one giant category.
There’s only a handful of Asian American films and series across all platforms. First- and second-generation kids of Asian descent in America don’t necessarily connect to Asian films and television from the other side of the world. There’s a massive Asian audience in the diaspora starved for relatable content that’s being completely ignored. Luckily, fellow filmmakers like Justin Chon, Geeta Malik and Andrew Ahn are producing authentic homegrown stories, despite all obstacles.
As someone who’s worked alongside DIY visionaries like Issa Rae, Tracy Oliver and Matthew Cherry; my goal is to inspire the next generation of Asian American storytellers to build their own table and have the confidence to greenlight themselves. While I’m happy that my parents got to see themselves represented in media, our generation in America didn’t have that same luxury. It’s past time for our experiences to be normalized onscreen with people who look and sound like us in front of and behind the camera. We are not a monolith. None of our lives are alike. We’re taking back the narrative to control our own stories and we’ll be so loud Hollywood can’t ignore us.
Sujata Day is the writer-director of 2021’s “Definition Please” on Netflix, and has acted in “Insecure” and “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
Throughout the month of May, Variety will publish essays and stories from prominent AAPI artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of AAPI entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.