Director Sonejuhi Sinha’s Stray Dolls debuts today on VOD, and if you’re looking for a film noir/thriller fix then this movie should be up your alley. During our interview Sinha talked about her determination to craft an ambitious narrative even with an indie budget. The feature, which stars Cynthia Nixon and Olivia DeJonge, features a stirring performance from Geentanjali Thapa. A lot of bases were covered during our chat, and for more information on the filmmaker and Stray Dolls, please check out the following interview!
Stray Dolls centers on Riz, an immigrant from India who takes the job as a maid at a motel where criminal activities are not exactly frowned upon. The motel’s owner (Cynthia Nixon) is, for lack of a better word, a shady business owner and her immature son Jimmy (Robert Aramayo) is a drug dealer. Jimmy’s girlfriend Dallas (Olivia DeJonge) ends up being Riz’s roommate, and she forces Riz to commit a crime that ultimately creates a devastating domino effect. Sonejuhi Sinha’s cinematic approach to the narrative, coupled with crafting an emotionally complex individual, makes this more than just a Grade B noir (btw I love B-level noirs so that’s not a knock!).
Lately I’ve been watching the noirs of director Joseph H. Lewis (So Dark The Night, My Name Is Julia Ross), and I’m a sucker for filmmakers who use whatever budget they have to enhance the production design and visuals of their film. Lewis had that talent, and so does Sinha. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood comes knocking and offers her some bigger budget fare to direct. Whether it’s a future career with the studios or continued work in the indie world, Sinha is a distinctive voice in cinema. It’s great to see those beginnings with Stray Dolls.
I’m a huge film noir fan, and a lot of the best stories in that genre have an underlying theme behind that stylized approach. Stray Dolls is a noir and a propulsive narrative, but this also feels like a somewhat personal tale.
Yes so glad you said that. I am also a huge fan of film noir and films from the 70s and 80s. This is sort of a modern day neo-noir, but like you said it’s a very personal story.
I myself grew up in India and immigrated to America and sort of went through that transition and duality. I wanted to develop those themes into this story and sort of bring to screen central characters that we had never seen before.
I wanted to play with genre elements but at the same time the central character is an Indian immigrant. She’s queer. It’s a queer love story so at the same time I wanted to play with these elements that we had never seen in this kind of space. And I wanted to say where we are in America now with the immigration so broken as well. It kind of does all of that.
Can you talk about casting Geetanjali Thapa, Olivia Dejonge and Cynthia Nixon for your film? Thapa’s excellent, and it must have been a coup to also land Nixon and Dejonge.
Thank you. So in casting Riz that was a bit of a challenge because we were casting in the U.S. and Iooking at Indian American actors who were fantastic but I started to realize that for Riz to have the authenticity that I wanted and the grit I was picturing, Riz should really be someone who is flown in from Bombay.
Our casting for Riz quickly became international and we were looking all over Bombay. Thankfully a good friend of mine recommended Geetanjali Thapa from Bombay who he connected me to immediately. She read the script and agreed to do it.
However, we still faced a really difficult of getting her an 01 Visa, flying her over, and doing this on a very small independent budget. We found her just in the nick of time. All of that was really nerve wracking and in fact her Visa was approved four days before we started shooting. Our produces were about to crack (laughs).’
But in figuring out the other pieces in Cynthia and Olivia, I think it was exciting for Cynthia to find out that we were flying someone from Bombay to play Riz. It was sort of exciting for her that a small indie like ours would take chances like that.
Olivia too – we had a conversation and she was in Sydney. Her essence was Dallas to me and I just knew that she and Geentajali would have incredible chemistry. We pulled off this international cast for this very small budget. I’m glad it came together and the chemistry on screen is palpable.
Speaking of palpable, I love how your film has a strong visual style, yet you’re shooting on an indie budget. Can you talk about being ambitious with your compositions even with an understandably tight schedule?
These are really ambitious choices that I took on for my debut feature and an indie feature at that. I think a couple of wrong turns would have been uncomfortable. I guess that never happens, right? Even the bigger films, put into a smaller budget box – it’s almost like you have a little bit less than what you actually need or want.
But I wanted to play with these elements. I wanted to have a really long, establishing steadicam shot that introduced the character and the world. That seemed to be the real choice with walking Riz through the setting. It was a challenging shot to pull off. We had half a day when we should have had the whole day to do that.
But I think all of our choices were a driven from a place of conveying authenticity. I really wanted the world of this motel to feel gritty. Almost like we could feel the dirt as we were watching it. So all of the choices were really driven by this idea of creating an immersive and really authentic world rich with detail.
We tried our best with the constraints of an independent budget.
What are the most important lessons you learned from this film that you will take to your other projects?
There was so much on this film that I felt I was just scratching the surface on. I want to really expand much more with the next film or my next project. I love female characters who are steeped in crime. It just renders a morally grey character that I love.
Also in terms of creating a world, I have a mission to push that to new areas as well and be ambitious with the visual style and be able to use tools like steadicams and dollies and things like that. I want to expand my tool kit as a director.
Can you name one of your films and what is it about this film that continues to resonate with you?
Well there are so many. I would say Taxi Driver with Martin Scorsese is one of my favorites and it was a huge inspiration for Stray Dolls. In looking at all the films that have been made on immigration or with central characters who are immigrants, I just never really saw characters that were really complex and flawed the way Travis Bickle is.
I felt if I’m going to make a film with an immigrant character, it has to go to this next level where we see things we’ve never seen before. We see aspects of her sexuality. We see aspects of desire. We get to see her making these really flawed choices which maybe if we were in her shoes, we wouldn’t do. At the same time, we are compelled to empathize with her
I think Taxi Driver (in terms of) creating a character who is complex and so layered and human was a huge inspiration for Stray Dolls and creating Riz.
Why aren’t more characters like Riz not portrayed in cinema even with the glut of content out there? Plus can you talk about meeting these issues head on, which includes the dominance of the male gaze in cinema, with this female centric narrative?
Yeah exactly. I think with a lot of films with central characters who are people of color, they are put into two simplistic boxes. Either they’re this super sympathetic character. We feel bad for them. They are barely surviving in life and we feel a sense of pity for them or they’re complete criminals and they’re not well developed. We really don’t see characters in the middle of the two.
My one ambition was to create that. To create somebody we are not pitying all of the time. She is not obsessed with survival. She has desires and a sexuality. She makes flawed decisions just like all humans do.
And then you’re right, in terms of the male gaze if you look in the noir space, the hero is usually white make – like a Ryan Gosling type of hero who is in a film like Drive. I really wanted to see somebody like myself in a film like Drive (laughs). We’re not there yet, but I hope we are heading in a future where we can see more unusual, central leads taking on a kind of a thriller or noir narrative.
These were the two things I was grappling with when I was creating Riz and I’m hoping that I created a character that we have never seen before on screen. That was my intention.