Last week, I sat in a small theater in New York’s East Village to watch a series of short films by South Asian American directors as part of the New York Indian Film Festival. I was there to see one movie in particular: Cowboy and Indian, by filmmaker and actress Sujata Day.
You might recognize Day as Sarah, the office bully from HBO’s Insecure, or as Cece, J’s “awkward soulmate” from The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. But Day’s Cowboy and Indian is different.
In the film, an Indian woman dressed in full Indian bridal regalia and adorned with ornate and luxurious jewelry emerges from the desert, only to collapse in utter exhaustion. She’s rescued and taken in by a kindly cowboy, but not everything is what it seems.
Because the film is just 8 minutes long, that’s about as far as I can go without spoiling the whole thing, but it’s gorgeously shot, a fun ride, and a fascinating symbolic exploration of what it is to be a person of color in the U.S.
“I want to write my Indian girl story, which is not going to be the Master of None or the Meet the Patels,” Day told me over the phone last week. “I love those stories, and they’re amazing, but I’m not trying to write this universal Indian American story. I’m trying to take from my experiences and put them out there.”
When I caught up with Day, we discussed turning down auditions for stereotypical roles, what it was like being apart of Issa Rae’s TV world, and crying in front of teenage girls.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Where did Cowboy and Indian come from?
I wanted to play with stereotypes. I’ve had to go into auditions for parts where they want me to do the accent or wear hijab, and I was like, you know what? I want to claim this. I want to claim my culture and where I’m from but then I want people to realize in terms of anything that you experience, what you see might not be what you get. I wanted to turn that on its head.
I feel like you hear a lot of horror stories of people getting sent to auditions for really offensive stereotypical characters. Some actors advise people to not take those kind of roles, but it’s not really an option to turn down roles when they’re trying to get their careers off the ground. What is your take on that?
I think there’s a balance. If there’s something offensive about the role, then for sure then don’t take it. I think this happens more with brown guys where there’s the terrorist roles. But it’s different in terms of comedy and drama. There could be this amazing role about an Indian woman that’s dramatic that isn’t making fun of the culture or making it a stereotype, and it’s just this really great role. I would do the accent, and it wouldn’t be offensive. But in comedy, I think sometimes when the joke is about them being Indian or being Muslim or being black, then that’s where I would want to say, “This is not an appropriate joke.”
I think you just have to listen to yourself. If you really need the money just do it, or if you don’t, then pass on it and something better will hopefully come.
How has your experience with that process as an actress affected your work as you shift into more writing and directing?
It’s so much more empowering being more than an actor. I try to encourage people who are here as solely actors to get into writing because the roles I want to play haven’t been written yet. Or they’ve been written by people of color. Playing Cece on Awkward Black Girl was a dream come true because it was a normal girl that just happened to be Indian, and of course that role was written by a woman of color.
I love writing about normal Indian girls who are just living their life. I love writing from a personal point of view and getting those stories out there so I can inspire little brown girls.
What was the journey like going from Awkward Black Girl to Insecure?
None of us on Awkward Black Girl expected to be apart of Insecure because we knew it was a whole different world. But Issa called me and said, “There’s a really small part for an Indian girl in the pilot, would you just come and shoot it and the role will get bigger in upcoming episodes?” And I was like, “Of course! Yes! Yes!”
Shooting the pilot was just amazing. People are always talking about diversity, [but] Issa’s actually doing it. I got to the set and from the [production assistant] to the [director of photography] to the director to the showrunner, it’s all people of color. I’m just seeing black girls everywhere, it’s such a utopia. When I get to another set, I’m like oh my god, there’s so many white guys, what’s up with that?
Being on the set of Insecure is such a dream. We were shooting the episode on the beach, and we had all those kids. I remember I was standing there watching the kids get off the school bus, and I started to get emotional, and I started to cry a teensy bit, and one of the teen girls looked up at me like, “ARE YOU CRYING?” And I was like, “No, no it’s just really windy!”
Oh my god that’s such an Awkward Black Girl/Insecure moment like, “No I’m not a loser, I’m not crying!”
Yeah, like me trying to prove myself to the kid! But it was crazy. We came from this itty bitty web series where no one was paid, and if you watch the first couple episodes the production value isn’t great and it’s a little janky. And then you get to this HBO set. It was just one of those moments where I really felt it.
What drives you as a filmmaker?
Definitely being first generation is a huge part of my story. And it’s not about being confused. I feel there are a lot of movies and TV ideas that have come out within the past 10-15 years and it’s just about being first generation.
Issa is obviously a huge inspiration for me. What she writes is very specific to her voice. She always says, “I’m not trying to write every black person’s story, I’m not trying to write the universal black story, I’m just writing what’s real to me. I just want to write about black women I know and experiences that I have had.” And I’ve kind of followed in the footsteps of her. I want to write my Indian girl story, which is not going to be the Master of None or the Meet the Patels. I love those stories, and they’re amazing, but I’m not trying to write this universal Indian American story. I’m trying to take from my experiences and put them out there.
You really infuse your work with your specific culture.
Obviously something like Cowboy and Indian is not really from a personal point of view. But it is something where I am so appreciative of my background and my culture, and putting something about being Bengali was very important to me in making that film. With the bride character, she wears the white Bengali head ornament. I wanted to make it very specific to my culture.
I get my ideas from just being me and knowing that those stories are only starting to get told right now. It’s a really exciting time in Hollywood where you go into rooms with executives, and they’re so hungry to hear this point of view, that it’s actually really encouraging. It’s an amazing time to be a person of color or a woman of color in Hollywood making content.
You can catch Cowboy and Indian at the Houston Asian American Pacific Islander Film Festival and Colorado Dragon Film Festival in June.