Arriving in America from India, Stray Dolls follows Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) as she attempts to make an honest living as a motel housekeeper where owner Una (Cynthia Nixon) has taken her, and others alike, in. Riz finds herself sharing a room with Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), a determined yet naive dreamer from the South who will use any means necessary in her efforts to save enough money to escape life at the motel. Just when their relationship develops into something like a friendship, so does their involvement in crime and violence as their circumstance becomes more desperate. This thrilling and suspenseful drama set beneath the neon lights of Tides Plaza Motel highlights the ever-diminishing existence of the American dream whilst drawing out our empathy for incredibly endearing but morally flawed characters.
We spoke with director, writer and producer of Stray Dolls, Sonejuhi Sinha, about the film ahead of the its digital release as well as her journey to make her first feature, the challenges of shooting it and her perspective as a storyteller...
Amy Watts: What made you want to direct films and what has been your pathway to making your first feature?
Sonejuhi Sinha: I went to college to be a writer and as I left college I didn't really see a path towards being a writer/director so I became an editor - I became an assistant editor first and that lead to me becoming a film editor and I got to work with really great directors like Harmony Korine and Spike Jonze. I edited feature documentaries, commercials and music videos - that was really my foundation in storytelling. I feel that's where I learnt how to take footage and find the characters, find the story arch, so I was an editor in New York for ten years before I sort of thought to myself, well what happened to the stories that I went to college to write, and to tell and to share with an audience?
So about five years ago, I started to write and direct short films. One of my early short films Love Comes Later got into the Cannes Film Festival so that was a bit of a turning point where I started to take my writing and directing more seriously and began writing a feature script. The Cannes Film Festival invited me back to do a development lab with several alumni of the festival - writer/directors so that's really where I started to workshop Stray Dolls. From that point on that's where the script really began. It was quite a journey to get financing and put the whole film together. We had several obstacles in the way - the financing came together and felt apart several times and I decided to become one of the producers as well and I think for a lot of women of colour and female directors that's important to do because it's rare for a team to galvanise behind you and just say "here, make your first feature!" - I think that step is really hard for women and women of colour. I think becoming a producer of the film was important and I became one of the people who wanted to make sure the film was going to get made and was going to get made within the next couple of years and not in ten years from now so the path was full of obstacles but we got it made in 2018 and premiered at Tribeca (Film Festival) last year.
AW: What were some of your favourite films growing up that perhaps impacted your decision to enter the film industry and what are some of your favourite films and filmmakers now?
SS: I grew up in India until I was 13 and so as a child there were very few American films. I remember Spielberg made a big impression on me. Jaws was one of my favourites - I mean it scared the shit out of me but I just didn't really know a film could sort of change your emotional DNA inside of you in such a way but also Indiana Jones was one of my favourites and E.T. but also films like Marathon Man and Kramer vs. Kramer - like a lot of those Oscar winner types would also make it to India so I remember watching a lot of these really iconic films that I think shaped the storyteller that I am. My parents didn't let me watch a lot of Bollywood because they thought it was a bit trashy so I watched a lot of Indian arthouse like all of Satyajit Ray's films and Shyam Benegal's films. These were stories that would cast people who were not actors - real people like it was the same movement as Italian Neorealism so a lot of the stories were grounded in reality and what people were experiencing as opposed to Bollywood which is so much about escapism so I think watching a lot of Indian arthouse cemented some of what I am as a storyteller.
Then when I went to college I was an English major and simultaneously a Film Studies Major and I watched all of the great auteurs, all of the European auteurs, Kieślowski and Tarkovsky, a lot of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave but I think some of my current influences at the moment are Jane Campion's The Piano. That has been a film that I keep going back to, I think it's so masterful. The character is so one of a kind, we've never seen a woman like that before and the storytelling is just so sharp and so confident, she's so confident in her own voice. Another recent film that I just absolutely love is Portrait of a Lady on Fire - it's just a sublime film. Now I think I'm seeking out even more diverse voices and taking a lot of inspiration from that. I appreciate what the voices who are outside of us are trying to do in film and trying to shift the narrative in different directions.
AW: What inspired the story of Stray Dolls?
SS: I had made the short film Love Comes Later that was set in a motel and it took a really small slice of the experience of an immigrant living and working in a motel, she commits a petty crime to survive and so that was the kernel of inspiration. I wanted to examine what happens to people in really flawed circumstances, can we define characters as either good or bad in circumstances that are inherently flawed? To do that simultaneously I really wanted to examine women in crime so I started to volunteer at the Women's Prison Association in New York and I came across a lot of stories from women who served jail time for committing pretty crimes, like crimes to survive for their loved ones like stealing food or basic necessities and yet they're labelled criminals. So I wanted to sort of play with a setting that was morally grey that adds to a character's psyche that's also morally grey, (characters) who try to make the best decisions they can when they're stuck between a rock and a hard place. These were the issues and themes I was orbiting around and from that came the story that I put together for Stray Dolls which is the story of this immigrant looking for the American dream in America but finds that her circumstances are quite flawed and she sort of surfs from one setting to the next trying to make the best of it that she can.
AW: This film speaks a lot to the myth of the American dream and how it may be limited by class, race and immigrant status. Have any of your own experiences having moved from India to America as a teenager informed your viewpoint of the American dream?
SS: Yeah, I came to the US at 13 and suddenly identity became so complicated for me because in India I was from India and I was Indian but coming to the US I was neither American nor was I Indian and it rendered me an outsider and I think I bring a lot of that perspective into all of the stories that I'm writing - an outsider's perspective and a perspective of that is steeped in isolation but I think that perspective is also quite universal because ultimately America is a country made of outsiders and part of what I wanted to say in Stray Dolls was that not only is Riz, who's an Indian immigrant, an outsider here but also Dallas who's an all American runaway from the South. She's an outsider as well because she's disenfranchised and she's socio-economically challenged so these outsiders are sort on the same plain. I wanted to see these two outsiders come together just as I wanted to tell a story of people looking in from the outside.
AW: The choice to set the film in a motel - which to me is a very iconic, cinematic, American symbol - was that a reference to any other films? Could you speak a little bit about the decision to set the story in a motel?
SS: Yeah, I find motels really fascinating as well, they're sort of a symbol of America. In the 60s and 70s, actually more in the 50s and 60s, all these middle class Americans would have a lovely vacation at the motel and took the whole family, it was a place where wholesome America would experience, almost like apple pie. I think what's interesting is in the 70s and 80s there were a lot of Indian immigrants coming to America and there was a lot of discrimination so they couldn't get jobs like engineering and a lot of them were engineers so simultaneously a lot of motels were going for closure and these immigrants started to buy the motels so now in America 70 to 80% of motels are immigrant run and run by Indian-Americans or Polish immigrants so I find that really interesting that the immigrants are resuscitating the American dream in a way because they represented this old idea of the American dream that no longer exists. So yeah I think motels are really symbolic and from a cinematic perspective they're incredibly visual; I love the neon, I love the colours. We did a whole colour pallet that was completely inspired by that so the setting is really quite rich is so many different ways.
AW: There's some incredible performances in the film and the dynamic between the two lead actresses is really endearing to watch as they open themselves up to each other, did you have a lot of rehearsal time to get them comfortable together or did their dynamic organically occur as you were filming?
SS: It was a little bit of both. I mean we didn't really have the luxury of a lot of rehearsal time - they were both flown in internationally, Geetanjali Thapa is Indian, she was flown in from Bombay (Mumbai) and Olivia DeJonge is Australian and she came in from Sydney so we had maybe two days rehearsal but their chemistry was immediately present and only grew, they became such good friends as we were shooting with them so it was really quite wonderful to watch and to see that blossom.
AW: Was it important to you to have an Indian actress in the role of Riz?
SS: Oh definitely! Just because I wanted to be aware of the perspective that I have and the story is so personal , it's really a personal story that's set in a motel so yeah it was really important to stay true to that and cast someone who was directly from India like me.
AW: Both characters seem to function by fantasising about the lives they want to have and wish they were living up until the very end. Without giving too much away to our readers, did you try alternative endings or were you very set on the ending that is featured in the film?
SS: I tried some different stuff out like very early on in the script (development) but I knew I wanted to sort of end on a satire of the American dream and sort of land in this place that shows how far we are from what that dream really was but also I wanted to leave it open ended for the audience to sort of take in what they felt they wanted from the end.
AW: What was the most surprising thing about filming your first feature?
SS: There's so many things but I guess the endurance of it is really staggering because before this I had done four or five short films and the longest I had shot together was three days consecutively and with this feature especially because it was low budget, we were shooting six days a week with one day off and each day was a 12 hour day and on top of it I was prepping and doing a lot - shot lists with my DP every night or coming in early to maybe have a meeting with the actors in the morning so it was really like 20 hour days for six days together and then even that one day off we were looking for new locations or having meetings with the crew, it was busy even on that one day off. I hear of these stories of these studio shoots are super easy because they get 60 to 70 days of shoot and four hours of shoot and you spend the rest of the time in your trailer but it was nothing like that. So the endurance of it was quite surprising but the adrenaline also kicks in and somehow you get through it.
Also another surprise I think was you get obstacles constantly and you're constantly putting out fires; you lose a location or you go overtime and you can't shoot a scene but I think the surprising aspect is usually those obstacles turn out to be opportunities like if you lose a location somehow you come up with something even better or you know, you have to cut a scene but that scene was never important and you ended up putting your time into another scene that's now really beautiful to watch or it's blossoming into something else - so that was another big takeaway that some of the surprises should just be embraced, opportunities should be taken advantage of as they come.
AW: What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers?
SS: I would just say try not to be overwhelmed with your bigger path of where you'll be in ten years or 15 years but just try to do what step is right in front of you like do that one short or do that one day shoot that you're so excited about and just follow that and keep it simple and just keep moving forward.
AW: What's the next project you're writing or working on?
SS: I'm writing a couple of different things. I'm working on a TV show that's based on the world of Stray Dolls so it's set in a motel and it actually follows an Indian-American motel owning family and their involvement in all the crimes that are happening at the motel and it's a family drama so something like Ramy meets Breaking Bad or something. I'm also working on another script with the central character who's this very grey, flawed character involved in crime, she's also brilliant, an immigrant as well so yeah some of the same themes but just on a bigger canvas.
Stray Dolls is now available to stream on various platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Hoopla and Google Play.