It didn’t take long for Sujata Day to figure out what Hollywood thought of South Asian women. Day, the daughter of Indian immigrants, grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and had big dreams to be an actor and filmmaker by the time she was a teenager. Her parents wouldn’t hear of it though. So after graduating from college with a degree in engineering, she got a job at a consulting firm in Los Angeles that was willing to pay for her to move out west. “All the steps I needed to take to move to LA were very premeditated,” she says.
But once in town, the roles she read for left her wanting more. “Early in my career I definitely had these auditions where I was going in for a stereotypical Asian-slash-brown-girl roles,” she says. “And I don’t mind going in for an audition for a South Asian role, even one with an accent, as long as it’s authentic.”
Except the South Asian female characters Day saw out there were far from interesting, let alone true. “The roles were all about the name, or about the accent or about what the character was wearing, or smelly curry jokes.” Day has also had opportunities to star in non-stereotypical roles—in Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae’s web series which would eventually lead to HBO’s Insecure, which Day is a recurring character on as an employee at a nonprofit, We Got Y’all.
Day eventually did what women of color in Hollywood have been turning to to sort through this problem: she wrote her own role. Her short film, Cowboy and Indian, premiered at the Center for Asian American Media’s festival CAAMFest this spring, and airs on Comcast this month. The film, which explores the unlikely desert meetup of a South Asian bride in distress and a white cowboy, upends the tired stereotypes about women, South Asian or otherwise, and their supposed white male saviors.
She spoke with CAAM about the film, which she wrote, directed, and starred in, and dished—just a little!—about exciting work on the way.
I will confess, until the twist at the end of your film, I was so annoyed. I was like what is this white guy up to? But the ending made me scream. I loved the immediate feel of campiness about it.
That reaction has come out of a lot of people. Especially people of color have been like, “Oh my god this is some white savior movie!” Then after the twist it’s like, “Thank God.” It’s not about the cowboy and Indian falling in love like you think it’s going to happen. I would never write a movie like that! You have to know who I am to know that’s definitely not how it’s going to go.
Your film is clearly a response to these really tired Hollywood narratives, and common depictions of South Asian women and white men. Is there a part of it that was a response to something personal in your own life?
I feel like this has just been building up over a couple years and luckily since Awkward Black Girl, I haven’t been in for a lot of stereotypical roles and the industry is slowly changing, but I really wanted to take back the narrative of doing an accent and just making it be a really a authentic story.
I wanted to turn it on its head. So you just see me and I’m wearing an Indian outfit, and you automatically think something of me. And then to be like no, there’s all these dualities and I wanted to be in control of the narrative as opposed to being in someone else’s work which usually is a white man writing a film or a TV show and their idea, which is not authentic at all.
You chose to put on an accent in the film.
That was part of it girl.
I’m so used to these stereotypical roles, so it’s funny that you deliberately decided to put on an accent to turn it on its head.
Oh yeah that was all part of it. I said: I gotta do the accent, I’m gonna go balls to the wall with this Indian bride, like how much more stereotypical Indian can you get? That’s what I was looking to do. I’m obviously very inspired by early Quentin Tarantino stuff. The film is almost the answer to the question what if one of the characters in Kill Bill was a South Asian bride.
I would love to watch a feature length version of that movie.
Well, hopefully, fingers crossed. I can’t say a lot right now, but there’s a lot of development happening in terms of a larger storyline.
You’ve been on the festival circuit, you brought Cowboy and Indian to CAAMFest. What has it been like bringing it out on the road?
It’s been amazing. CAAMFest was the premiere, which was so great. It was a great audience. I think CAAMFest was the first time I saw it on a big screen with other audience members, and every time the twist happens, the audience gasps, and literally, I live off that gasp. Every time I see it on the big screen, I think what is the audience going to respond to, how are they going to respond to it?
It’s my first film I’ve directed and people will come to me after the Q&A’s and ask me about it, Where is the story going? What did he do to deserve that? I love when people come at me with it, because I didn’t want to answer it all in the film. It is a short film and I think it’s better when you can leave it open ended.
Besides early Quentin Tarantino, who are your inspirations? When you were a kid watching TV and movies, who made you think: oh, I want to do that?
Oh, I would say, well this is kind of a question of, when did you see yourself on screen? And I was definitely Bend It Like Beckham. I was like, what? Jessminder is playing soccer and hiding this from her parents? And this is what I do too? And it was really wonderful. I think early on I was inspired by comedic-type films.
But that was more acting. In terms of filmmaking, definitely early Tarantino, another movie that was more recent was definitely A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. And that I loved how [the director] Ana Lily Amirpour used her culture in her film. It was about a vampire who wore a burqa, and I was like gosh, I’ve never seen anything like that. And I’m so close to my culture and I love it and I’m always trying to use it in my work.
I read that you grew up in a suburb in Pittsburgh. How did you end up in LA?
My dad got a job as an engineer in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. He went back to India, and got married to my mom.
Pretty classic story.
Very classic story. It was an arranged marriage, they had met two weeks before the wedding for five minutes, and they were both like sure, sure. And both of them left their families and everything they knew in India to move to a quiet suburbs of Pennsylvania and it was me and my older brother, and I honestly loved growing up in Greensburg. Not a lot of diversity but I will say I never really experienced a ton of racism growing up.
After I graduated high school I went to Case Western University to study engineering and got my engineering degree there. I mean personally, I wanted to move to L.A. when I was 18. But having immigrant parents, they really weren’t cool with that at all. That really wasn’t even a choice.
I went to L.A., I worked at a consulting firm for a year, Accenture, and I was kind of worst employee of the year. You could send all your phone calls to your cell phone. So I never went in, I worked from home, and I’d go to auditions and get my headshots, book commercials, and then after a year working there I left. I had booked three commercials, I kind of had beginners luck with commercials. And I started waitressing, which was always my kind of dream.
Moving to LA, being a starving artist, waitressing, meeting all these cool people in restaurants. It was really fun and I really loved it.
At any point in that time did it feel difficult to step away from the road of stability your parents had set out for you?
Not at all. Not at all. the idea had been planted in my brain since middle school. All the steps I needed to move to L.A. were very premeditated. And of course my parents were in the dark—like Bend It Like Beckham! Oh cool you’re moving to L.A.? You have a great job, you’re making 80k a year out of college? That’s great! But they didn’t know what the grand plans was. I always knew what the grand plan was.
As soon as I got there I was like okay, what are the good acting classes, where can I get good pictures? Where should I be auditioning? And that happened right away for me. I always had my eyes on the prize.
It’s a great story. I would be remiss if I did not ask you about Insecure and Awkward Black Girl. You’ve described the set as this magical place where women of color are everywhere.
I met Issa Rae via Twitter—holla to Twitter. We had both joined at around the same time, before it was even a thing. One day she tweeted I’m looking for a mixed looking girl to play my best friend on this web series.
I tweeted back and said, hey I’m not mixed but this is what I look like. Let me know if you want me to read for the role. I went in, got the role, and it was so refreshing, because the role had nothing to do with my background or my culture, even though later on it was written in, some funny stuff. One of my favorite jokes on the show is how Issa’s character and my character, we’re besties, and we’re like curry fried chicken. And I love that.
At first I was like, what is the web series where no one gets paid, and where Issa’s putting all the bills on her credit card? And all of a sudden people started watching it, people were talking about it, Pharrell came in, we had season 2. At the end of season 2, Issa got the deal with HBO and 3 years passed before we shot the pilot. She said hey, there’s a role for an Indian girl on the show. I was excited to be part of it. None of us expected to be in Insecure because it’s a different world, and a whole other story. The fact that she has brought so many of us on has been pretty exciting for the fans who’ve been with us since day one.
It’s awesome, and it’s definitely a utopia of women of color in charge everywhere behind the scenes and in front of the scenes. It’s something that barely exists in Hollywood.
Are you team Issa or team Lawrence?
Team Issa! All day. Team Issa all day. Though I will say Jay Ellis, the guy who plays Lawrence, is the nicest guy ever. I’m definitely team Jay Ellis.
Is it tiresome for you to answer when people ask about this big moment for South Asian filmmakers and actors because there’s been this blossoming of roles in films, especially for men?
It’s not weird. There’s been some controversy in terms of South Asian males writing from a very personal point of view and not portraying South Asian women in a positive light. My response to that is we as South Asian brown females need to create our own work. It’s not about putting down a specific movie or TV show because I loved Master of None, I loved Hasan Minhaj’s comedy special. And I am so excited that these brown voices are being heard.
It’s about us putting out our own stories. That’s the answer to any kind of controversy, and I just hope to be on the forefront of creating shows and roles for women.
The challenge is financing these ideas. Before it wasn’t happening but now it is because these studio heads, these network heads are realizing there’s money to be made, and the more niche it is, actually the more universal it gets.
Are you saying there’s going to be Sujata Day Netflix special?
(Laughs). Well, I’m not gonna do a standup comedy special, for sure.
Okay, the Sujata Day variety show or horror movie?
I mean, that would be super awesome. I’d be super down.
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This interview is made possible by XFINITY and has been edited for length and clarity. Watch Cowboy and Indian on Comcast on Demand through the end of October!