Cover Definition Please star Ritesh Rajan talks about the movie (Photo: Pavithra Ramasubramanian)

The actor tells Tatler how Definition Please is an empowering take on South Asian stories, family dynamics while opening up the conversation on success and mental illness

Definition Please, a new movie that dropped earlier this year on Netflix, is a lot of things. It pushes back South Asian stereotypes, looks at how success means differently for everyone, portrays complicated yet truthful family dynamics, uncovers childhood wounds, unpacks trauma and grief and an empowering take on mental illness. But for me, at the heart of the movie’s many layers is the rocky sibling relationship between Sonny and Monica.

The movie follows a former spelling bee champion, Monica (Sujata Day) who’s struggling to live up to her potential as an adult. Just when things couldn’t get any better, her estranged brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) comes home and long-held resentments come boiling over the surface.

Coming from a Southeast Asian family, I felt a deep emotional connection to Definition Please so I knew I just had to sit down and talk to Ritesh Rajan about the movie. Turns out, we do have something in common—we’re both the middle child. In this exclusive interview with Tatler, Rajan tells me how the film cracks open many things: representation of South Asians and pushing back stereotypes, family relations, how success is measured differently and its personal portrayal of mental illness.

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Definition Please in so many things but one of the things it touched is the portrayal of Sonny and Monica’s relationship. Can you describe that sibling relationship to us?

I’m a cursed middle child! I have an older brother and a younger sister. Personally, they are a huge support system and a place to turn to for both personal and professional advice. But when it comes to Sonny and Monica, it’s definitely more complicated. In their younger years, Sonny was very protective of Monica, sometimes taking the blame for things that necessarily were not Sonny’s fault.

I think in many families, and especially in South Asian and broader Asian culture, the idea of the oldest sibling taking the reins of the family is a big deal, especially as parents get older. Sonny clearly has passed those responsibilities to Monica…for better or for worse. Coupled with the fact that Sonny has not taken care of his mental health…it puts a heavy strain on Monica and Sonny’s relationship. The ups and downs they feel together are directly tied to Sonny’s bipolar disorder; in a way, their relationship mirrors Sonny’s mood swings. One moment everything is fine and the next they are disconnected and filled with pain.

Sujata Day is the director, producer (alongside yourself) and stars in the movie while the cast is mostly Asian American, especially South Asian Americans. How important is it that those behind the scenes and in front of the cameras are South Asians themselves?

Having representation and inclusion behind the camera is just as important as in front. When you have someone in the creation process who understands the cultural point of view, it’s a big deal. It allows them to facilitate and tell the story from a true and culturally specific point of view.

That’s the reason why we watch movies, TV, read books, listen to music because we want to live in the shoes of another person for that small period of time. We get to learn from them, laugh and take part in their joys, and cry with them when they are dealing with something painful or difficult. If we can keep getting more and more specific, we can produce a much more effective product, both commercially and artistically.

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The film also tackles the definition of success and what it takes to be successful. What is your own definition of success?

A lot of Asian parents would disagree with me on this but personally, success is happiness. My happiness is not only tied to what I do but more importantly to these questions: “Am I doing everything I can to succeed? Not because I can make more money if I am successful, but rather am I fulfilled? Is what I do for a living fulfilling myself and enriching the lives of those around me?”

I’d like to think the answer is yes! Of course, you need to make money but it’s not everything. Life is completely unpredictable and you cannot control others. All you can do is balance what is put in front of you and control your own actions. I think to be at the height of success is to master balance.

Speaking of success, how does the film’s exploration of it specific to the Indian American experience in the film?

For one, we have two kids who were both in their own rights doing very well in their youth. Monica was a spelling bee champion and Sonny was a star athlete who seemed to be very charismatic in his high school days. It’s very rare to see Indian people who peaked in high school.

This film explores that idea. An Indian American family dealing with the trauma of their past…so much so that it hinders their success moving forward. Instead of focusing on the outcome as many do, the film focuses on the growth that, hopefully, one day, can lead to positive or successful outcomes.

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I also felt particularly close to how the film looked at yourself vs. your family. The responsibilities that tie you to your family and the responsibility you have for yourself, like fulfilling your own dreams. Was that also something that you relate to?

I’d relate to the broader family dynamic. I think in the majority of Asian households, kids feel a certain responsibility to take care of their parents or usher in the next generation. For me, especially as a first-generation Indian American, I think about how I will pass Indian culture to my kids and how I personally owe everything to my parents and family. They fully supported my dreams of being an actor, which had a big impact on my mindset.

But that is not the case with everyone. Sonny was afraid of his family duties because he became dangerous to his own loved ones. He goes to California because he thinks distance and isolation is the right decision. That can be very tough for a tight, close-knit family. It’s through the support of his own family that he is able to start talking about his issues and hopefully begin the healing process. 

The issues that Sonny faces growing up are all too familiar. How much of those do you relate to and did you give your own input into shaping Sonny’s character? And what about Sonny’s character attracted you the most?

The pressure of success has always been big deal in Indian culture. Issues like “How much money do you make? What do you do? Who are you married to?”—these are things that Sonny clearly has ignored but they weigh on him. Dealing with these pressures is something we can all relate to, so I wanted to make sure I was funnelling that through a very specific Indian American lens.

When it came to approaching his mental health, I spoke to many doctors, including both my parents who are doctors and many of my aunts and uncles who are also doctors. I went to New York University (NYU) so many of my friends in college were pursuing medicine or were psychiatrists. I reached out to all resources I was able to tap into.

I wanted to make sure I was not only culturally accurate but medically accurate, as well. Sonny is such a complicated character…it was those layers that drew me in. I don’t get many opportunities to play such an in-depth and meaty character, so I was immediately excited by the prospect to explore someone who had dealt with so much trauma and be able to bring that to the screen.

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“I wanted to make a point that every family—no matter where you come from or your culture—can be affected by mental illness and it’s something we should take more care in speaking about”
Ritesh Rajan

Speaking of mental illness, that was another big issue that the film explores which I personally saw as a big step in opening up the conversation especially for Asian families, where it isn’t talked about or hidden out of shame and to keep “face”. How did you approach that and was there anything challenging to portray?

This was a personal interest of mine. It was important that we kept the context of mental illness in the realm of the South Asian experience. That meant “keeping face”, just as you said. I thought about how brushing it under the rug because you are ashamed of what other families may think will affect Sonny. I wanted to make a point that every family—no matter where you come from or your culture—can be affected by mental illness and it’s something we should take more care in speaking about.

I had to make sure I wasn’t sensationalising his conflict and had to keep it as grounded as possible. I was specific about how I portrayed Sonny because I didn’t want to make him scary or aggressive because he’s really the opposite. That’s what makes his outbursts so scary and dangerous because they can happen at any moment like a time bomb. I hope this film can at least start a discussion among people who are struggling with mental illness or push someone to find the right resources.

Can you tell us what it’s like working with Sujata Day for Definition Please?

I would follow Sujata to hell and back. For her to be able to take a project, write, direct, star and produce it, could she be any more impressive? She’s kind, strong, funny, and very caring. Her ability to wear multiple hats, stay organised and communicate with everyone is a very special quality.

I had a very safe space to explore and experiment with my acting choices, both with Sujata and Anna Khaja who plays my mom in the movie. I felt very comfortable taking the risks I needed as an actor to give the best performance possible. I owe that to my scene partners! Oh…did I mention we shot the whole movie in 12 days? I hope Sujata doesn’t forget about me when she is directing her Marvel movie. (laughs)

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What are some of your favourite scenes in the movie?

I’m trying not to give spoilers here but I love the scene when Sonny interrupts Monica’s late-night activity (laughs). It’s a great scene that represents their relationship as siblings while showing how much of a vice grip their past holds on them. It’s a great and powerful glimpse of the obstacle in front of them as a family and as siblings.

Definition Please gained buzz during the film festival circuit and is now on Netflix for more people to see. What do you hope viewers can get out of watching the film?

More than anything, I hope they become inspired—to pursue their dreams, to have a conversation about mental health, or just inspired because they are able to see someone on screen that looks like them. Also, hug your parents and tell them you love them. Everyone makes mistakes, including them. Heal together, grow together, love each other, and inspire others.

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Definition Please is streaming on Netflix US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

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