Sujata Day, in conversation with ISAASE founder Dr. Punita Rice.
Sujata Day (Sarah from Insecure, also the director and star of her own film Cowboy and Indian, and actress in a ton of other things) is an actor, model, screenwriter and filmmaker, who wants to see more honest reflections of South Asian American women and our stories in Hollywood. (And she’s actually doing something about it.)
For a section in my forthcoming book on South Asian Americans’ experiences ins chools (read more about the book here) about depictions of South Asian Americans in mainstream media, I interviewed Sujata Day. Some of what we discussed, especially about South Asian American representation in Hollywood, will appear in a chapter of my book. I’m sharing some bits of our conversation featuring some of her experiences in Hollywood (and working with Issa Rae), her thoughts on South Asian American representation on screen (and behind the screen), and why South Asians need to support each other. Here’s our chat…
Punita Rice: You’ve done shows — like HBO’s “Insecure” — and movies, and you’ve acted and directed. What are you hoping to do now with your current projects?
Sujata Day: I’m doing three different TV shows, at three different production companies. One I just wrote, and I have another feature I wrote with my Asian girlfriend — which is basically a female version of Harold & Kumar go to White Castle. I’m trying to explore what our next stories are, as opposed to what White people want to see our stories as.
Punita: I love that. That’s the kind of thing that makes an impact for so many of us who haven’t seen ourselves on screen, seeing that kind of diversity in storytelling.
Sujata: That’s so important because, personally, I haven’t seen that yet. I haven’t really seen myself in a show or movie.
Punita: We first got in touch after I posted some stuff about representation. A lot of people get to have that, but as women of color, and especially as South Asian American women, we’re often given very specific, generic, or else very stereotypical Brown girls as our mirrors on screen. In your own words, why is it important to see yourself reflected back? Or why do young Brown kids in general need to see themselves reflected?
Sujata: We grew up and we were taught that White stories were the universal stories, and we accepted that. We watched Dawson’s Creek, and The O.C., and we were taught that that’s like our story — and I think if I had seen myself growing up, on TV, I would have been more open to other aspects of myself, [like] “Oh my choices in going to college aren’t doctor slash engineer, they could be something else.”
Punita: Is that what you’re trying to do through your projects, for other Brown girls?
Sujata: I’m not out here trying to write the universal story for Brown girls. But I am trying to say I had this really cool experience growing up as a Brown girl in the suburbs and I feel like a lot of people are going to connect to it.
Punita: Do you feel a push to highlight or, on the other end, to suppress the Indianness or foreignness underlying the stories you want to tell?
Sujata: There are three separate producers who are all saying lean into the Bengali side of your stories.
Punita: Oh, wow.
Sujata: I’ve never been able to tell the little Bengali things that happen. I’m excited to explore those things and share them. This is almost the Issa Rae track of what’s happening; she shepherds other projects.
Punita: So, telling these stories might let you empower more people to tell their stories?
Sujata: Once I get into a position to do so, I want to be able to share other people’s stories — [like] where’s the next Bend it Like Beckham?
Punita: Right. Is this that moment for you? And maybe for all minorities in Hollywood?
Sujata: What’s really cool out here right now is what’s happening is that amidst all this craziness of White men in power falling left and right, all the agencies are putting into place their diversity & women initiatives, so the industry has never been so open to stories of the other. It’s a really exciting time right now.
Punita: As opposed to what was it like for you when you first went to Hollywood?
Sujata: When I first got to Hollywood, it was very competitive amongst the Brown people. It was like there was only ONE Brown role for ONE Brown project, so it was like we were all going for it… I know we were all raised to be really competitive and compare ourselves to the other Indian parents’ kids, but I think we have to start to get rid of that attitude, and support each other — which is what I’ve seen [among Black actors] in the film industry, they all support each other. It’s really important.
Punita: Do you feel like that’s going to happen for South Asian American actors?
Sujata: Over the past couple years, there’s been so many roles that are going to Brown folks, so now that’s not a thing anymore (unless you make it a thing, which is awful), so what I’ve been seeing a lot over the past 5 years or so, is we’re starting to lift eachother up, and support each other, even if we did go in for that same role.
Punita: Can that support of one another happen from behind the scenes too?
Sujata: Something cool and important happening in Hollywood, and especially on the set of “Insecure,” [is] Issa hires production assistants or personal assistants that are Black girls.
Punita: So when it comes to the South Asian American community…
Sujata: I think it’s important for Brown kids to know there are other aspects of this industry besides M Night Shyamalan, director. You can be a sound recordist. You can be a wardrobe designer. You can be a makeup artist. You can do all these other, different things, that add to the moving picture. They don’t have to just be the writer, producer, director.
“If you see more people behind the scenes, you’re more likely to see them in front of the screen.”Sujata Day
Punita: And bringing it back to the visible representation thing, I’m imagining that they’re likely to influence what’s happening on the other side too.
Sujata: I think that’s going to affect change. If you see more people behind the scenes, you’re more likely to see them in front of the screen.
Punita: What impact do you want to have on Hollywood and America?
Sujata: Since I was on Awkward Black Girl, and I was so inspired by Issa, and the stories she was telling for Black women, so I decided I want to tell these stories for Brown women… That’s what I’m doing with all of my projects right now… I don’t just want to tell the arranged marriage story — Brown people in general, we’re past that storyline. I want to explore everything ELSE that goes with being a Brown girl in American society.
Content has been edited for clarity. More from the conversation can be found in a chapter of Dr. Rice’s book; read more about the book here. Visit Sujata Day’s official website at www.SujataDay.com. Sign up for Dr. Rice’s TinyLetter here to get updates on the book and release date.