What a difference a year makes. Last January, I received an email out of the blue from none other than Sujata Day, who I’d known of initially from her work with Issa Rae. At the time, I wasn’t aware that her feature-length directorial debut, Definition Please, had been killing it on the festival circuit for a bit. Her email caught me at the right time, and her film—a dramedy centered around a former spelling bee champ and the issues in her Bengali-American family. It’s a touching indie film that felt fresh and blew me away, especially the performance from Ritesh Rajan (Russian Doll, Hot Mess Holiday), who plays Sonny, the brother of Sujata’s character Monica. As we learn more about Sonny and the issues he’s been dealing with (and how they impact his family), I got to see that Rajan—who I’d seen in Russian Doll and other projects, but never in a role this dense—act act. I’m no stranger to captivating indie performances, but I was impressed by his range and wanted to see this little film get released so everyone could feel what I felt.
Lucky for everyone, we live in the era where Ava DuVernaysees us and, with the help of her company ARRAY, acquired Definition Please (alongside Agam Darshi’s Donkeyhead) up for release on Netflix today (Jan. 21). I got hype—because my wish literally came true, but also because that meant I could speak to Rajan about his work on this dynamic film (which he also produced). During our conversation, Rajan reflects on the journey from meeting Day to finally getting the “meatier” work he was looking for in front of the people, while looking at his future projects, which include more work as the voice of Ken in the Barbie series, as well as appearing in Season 2 of Russian Doll.
How long did you know about Definition Please coming to Netflix before this news got out?
I would say in the last, maybe, month? Obviously, I’m a producer on the film, so I knew the discussions were occurring, but from lessons learned, we didn’t want to say anything until the Deadline article dropped.
I will tell you when it finally sank in. We had a call with the ARRAY team basically a couple of days before the article had dropped, and it was amazing because the whole team was there. Ava was there, and it meant a lot to me, the fact that she was taking the time to sit down and speak to us and just give us her guidance, her experience, her leadership. That’s when I was like, “Oh. Wow. Okay. This is...”
“This is real.”
“This is real,” yeah. It was kind of surreal for me because I was at Disneyland, supporting my girlfriend. She’s a performer there, and so it was the last day of her performance, I was there, and I’m like, “Oh, man. I’m getting out of Zoom with Ava and I’m at Disneyland. Welcome to Hollywood.”
You’re really jumping in with both feet. Big leagues.
Yeah. It was great, and that’s when it kind of finally… I was like, “Okay. We’re doing this. We’re finally doing this.”
Were you cool with Sujata? How did she approach the role of Sonny to you?
So, I met Suj at a talkback, sort of an “Asian Americans in entertainment.” One of our friends, AJ Rafael, connected us. We did that talkback, that’s kind of where we met, and then Suj ended up writing a little parody about #OscarsSoWhite. That was the first time we actually worked together. After we filmed that, literally while we were just kind of chilling, she’s just like, “Hey. So, I’m working on a script. It’s a family sort of dramedy. I would love for you to take a read when you get a chance.” I’m like, “Yeah. Great. Send it over.”
It was one of those passing-by conversations. I wasn’t expecting to hear from her for another year, like the typical, “Hey, I got a project,” and you don’t hear anything. But she literally hit me up a couple of weeks later. She was like, “Can we grab lunch?” Met her for lunch. She’s like, “I’m done with the script. I want you to play my brother.” She was goading me with tropical drinks and egg rolls and samosas, and I remember being like, “This is great. Let me read the script first.” Went home, read it, and I was like, “I got lucky.” I was like, “This is the real deal.”
She trusted me enough to trust me with this role, which—at that point, I was looking to play more in-depth, meatier characters. The story really spoke to me more than anything as a performer because it was really telling a story about an American experience through the lens of an Indian American family. More specifically, a Bengali-American family. So that was really, really enticing to me because I would just get the opportunity to tell stories that normally are not reserved for people like us.
Then we just got the ball rolling. The one thing about Sujata, which I’m sure you know, she is a fierce, fierce competitor in this space and incredibly talented, and so to have her leading the helm, I just jumped right on board. I was like, “I got to bring it for her,” because she was wearing so many hats. I’m like, “I just got to worry about this one thing,” so I was like, “I better show up. Otherwise, she’s going to have a word with me.”
I went to school with Indian American kids, but I didn’t know what home life was like. Actually, I didn’t even realize, in watching the film and understanding… hell, as a black man, I think I understand the role mental health doesn’t play in the community, but to see that reflected in an Indian American family as well… What was that experience like? Were you speaking to people who were dealing with those types of issues that Sonny did?
Yeah. Luckily, I had access to many medical professionals. Both my parents are doctors. My dad is one of eight. Six of his siblings are doctors. All of their spouses are doctors. So, as you can see, I’m very much a failure to my family. [Laughs]
Don’t say that. [Laughs]
I went to NYU. A lot of my NYU friends, South Asian friends, they’re also in medicine, so I was able to talk to them, talk to a lot of psychologists and people in the mental health space, psychiatrists, and really sit down and diagnose Sonny in dealing with bipolar disorder. Talking to people personally and privately about their experiences, and taking all of that clinical information and personal information and then providing it in the most authentic lens within the South Asian experience.
As you said, dealing with mental health is different from culture to culture, and particularly with… I think the Asian experience as a whole, it’s very shameful because it’s not something that’s tangible. It’s not something that you can control. It’s not something that you can just clinically treat in a traditional illness. First of all, it’s just recognizing that it is an illness and being like, “This is an illness and it’s not something to be ashamed about.” It’s not something like, “Oh, just throw it under the rug; keep it within the family.” There are so many stories about South Asian diaspora about kids just being like, “Well, he does well in school and he has good grades and he’s doing all these activities. Why is he upset?” and you’re like, “Well, maybe you should talk to him or her about it and diagnose it.” So many people are afraid to broach the subject because it’s unknown to them. That’s fearful, and they don’t want the side-eyes from the aunties and uncles which is basically the cultural bullshit and trauma that we carry as a culture. I hope this film, more than anything, just starts that dialogue.
I do want to say some of those scenes with Sonny, man, I remember watching, and I’m like, “Ugh.” They get very intense! What was it like on set? Sujata mentioned that there was a small window in terms of shooting. You only had so many takes; what was that energy like in the room?
Oh, man. I think we shot it in like… We shot all of my scenes, I believe, in 12 days and then the latter two days were just basically B roll or, “We need to just pick this up.” So I knew going into it… I don’t think we did more than four to five takes, and that’s only if there was a technical mistake, because we just didn’t have the time and, frankly, we really didn’t have the money. That’s part of indie filmmaking. So the rehearsal process for me and Sujata was very, very important, to me and obviously to her, because I wanted to make sure I was bringing the most authentic choices. I wanted to make sure that the choices I was making were the story that she wanted to tell. I know she personally has dealt with mental health in her community and in her family and stuff like that, so I wanted to make sure that I was representing the vision that she had put on the page. So the rehearsal process for us was very… at least I was very intense about it. I remember going to Suj’s apartment. She thought we were going to do a read through, and I had all my choices and… I’m sitting there, crying on the couch, rolling on the floor, and she’s like, “What the hell are you doing, dude?” I’m like, “Oh.”
“We weren’t ready for that yet.” [Laughs]
Yeah. But I just wanted to make sure that I was bringing the most realistic, authentic, and tangible experience, both for the filmmakers, the crew, and the viewers. I had my choices ready so if she didn’t like the first one, I had the second one, I had the third one, and knowing that I had to trust her; if there was something she didn’t like, she was going to tell me. I didn’t have to worry about that. So I made sure that we were on the same page with that. I was like, “Yo. If we need to redo something, tell me. I’m okay with the criticism on the spot. I want to make sure that we’re bringing the best product forward.”
By the time I spoke to Sujata, the film was already on the festival circuit. What was that like for you to be winning awards and getting so many accolades, both within the community as well as just in the indie circuit in general?
Filmmaking and being an artist as a whole, I always say it’s just walking through a dark tunnel and you’re like, “Oh my God. I can see a flicker of light.” Whether that might be a small candlelight or a massive light beam, it’s like, “Oh.” You’re kind of always chasing that, and I found in this journey… because this was my first project as a leading man in a feature film, and I was just like, “I got to focus just on my job, and focusing on my job is making sure that I’m a team player, making sure that I’m on time, I’m prepared, I’m here to work with my fellow artists and creative, both behind and in front of the camera,” and just doing that. That’s pretty much all I did. Then, once the movie comes out, it was like, “Oh. Is it good? Do people like it?” So a lot of it was just digesting people’s reactions, and then it became about just telling the story and pushing the message of the movie, because that’s what’s going to stick with you. I hope people leave the movie and be like, “Oh, they’re great actors and they’re great filmmakers,” but more than anything, I think, if people are like, “I was really affected by the relationships. I was really affected by the brother-sister relationship,” which I’ve been told a lot, whether it’s the sibling dynamic or even in the South Asian lens of the mother, how she deals with the children, how Jaya deals with her kids, and the kind of the insane aspect of… she is lying to us to bring us together. Which is very much like an auntie thing. People will go to the ends of the earth for their families, and when you look at like that, you’re like, “Oh, okay. So, this ain’t so bad from that perspective.” But really dialing in and focusing on what matters.
For me, after doing all these festivals and doing all these talkbacks, seeing how people really reacted to the message of the film was really, really touching to me. Of course, obviously, them enjoying the movie is great too, but it kind of goes… Those are just the sprinkles on the top. This was the body, the ice cream scoops, which I was like, “Okay. We got a real project here.”
Have you been working on anything else during the quarantine?
Yeah. Obviously, doing Definition Please, doing all the circuits, making sure that we’re prepared and ready for this moment, but we’ve got Russian Doll Season 2 coming out. I don’t know the date, but fingers crossed it’s sooner than later because I know a lot of people are excited about that. I know we’ve got a great season coming up. Then, I am the voice of Ken for Barbie. We actually had a bunch of movies, and I believe a new series should be coming up, and that’s also Netflix. That’s in the Netflix family, it’s a great family show, highly recommended. Barbie is in a new era. She’s got all of her friends. It’s actually a really great cartoon to sit down and watch with the family, and we’ve got some big things in the pipeline for that one.
Do you have any more aspirations as a producer?
I think, for me, at the stage in my career where I’m at, in order to do the projects you kind of have to wear different hats and play multiple roles just to help out, especially in the indie filmmaking space. I would love to get more involved in projects that I’m in. I think I have a unique point of view to offer. I’ve worked on the smallest budgets to the largest budgets. I spent a lot of time on the Jungle Book set and seeing everything behind the scenes. That was a project I was on for almost a year because I did all the motion capture for Mowgli as well, so I was there from way back when. So I absorbed as much as I could from every project that I work on, and I would love to just help more underrepresented communities tell their stories. That’s something that’s passionate for me, and if we can tell more stories, I’m a big believer that the high tide raises all the boats and it’s our time to take over.