The American clichés of “Bonnie and Clyde”, the “American Dream”, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, are mixed together in the refreshingly raw new movie, “Stray Dolls”. It focuses on three women who are outsiders living on the outside of the law: Riz (Geetanjali Thapa), a petty criminal and an immigrant from India; Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), a southern runaway teen; and Una (Cynthia Nixon), an immigrant from Eastern Europe. These three women represent the reflection of the broken edges of the American dream. The filmmaker is Sonejuhi Sinha, also an immigrant from India, came to the United States as a teenager. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Sonejuhi, and loved that she’s telling the stories of female outsiders. The film is available on demand and streaming on various major platforms today (see below). Go check out the film and start a conversation with your friends about this American dream-flipping thriller.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?
SONEJUHI SINHA: In 2015, I made a short-film called “Love Comes Later” which was about an immigrant who works for a motel, and decides to commit a petty crime to survive. It was a ten-minute short-film and it premiered at the Cannes film festival. That was when I started to think about what it would look like in a bigger feature. How would I build the world out to include more characters? What am I trying to say? So that’s where it began. Then I volunteered at the WPA (Women’s Prison Association), and really started to come across stories of women falling into a life of crime.
For a lot of them, that step isn’t conscious. They happen to fall into crime, either to survive or make enough money to buy food for their families, and suddenly they are labeled as criminals. Incarceration rates for women in prison has increased ten times in the last ten years. I found all of this really fascinating. I wanted to play in that space where I could really create a character as a woman of color who was also very flawed. I wanted the audience to watch the characters make choices that we didn’t necessarily agree with, but it would make us ask ourselves whether we would have made the same decisions in their shoes. This brings enough empathy to the character to involve us in her journey.
MARTIN: Your female characters are fascinating. Great casting, especially Cynthia Nixon, whom I love. What’s interesting to me is that I have never seen women onscreen represented this way. Usually when you see women oncreen in motels they’re prostitutes, and just seen as such. You never really go deep into their story. Can you talk about what you were trying to bring to screen with these characters?
SINHA: You touched on something really interesting, that women in motels are hyper sexualized and usually seen as prostitutes. I wanted to flip that with the female gaze to explore sexuality in a healthier way. Female characters as immigrants onscreen are put into small boxes. Either they are prostitutes, or they are barely surviving. We have this sense of pity for them, or they are complete criminals. I really wanted to explore what’s in the middle, and what the gray area is. That way, we can see the characters as completely human and full of these complexities.
Riz is an Indian immigrant character–she’s queer, and we get to really see what sexuality is to her. We subscribe to making Dallas really well-rounded. She is explosive and unpredictable, but she’s also a child, extremely vulnerable. She almost hides her vulnerability with this acerbic side. And of course Cynthia Nixon brought so much of her personal truth to her role as Una, and she did such an incredible job. Una is an interesting character because she is an immigrant who came to the US when she was four or five, so she has had more opportunities than an immigrant like Riz. But at the same time, she is the “Trumpian” figure, in a sense, since she thinks that, ‘If I pull myself up with my boot straps, why can’t you?’ And I’m going to exploit you like the Americans exploit us.
I wanted to create characters who were not good, and not bad, but somewhere in the middle. They were trying to make the best choices for their own destiny.
MARTIN: After reading your bio, your personal story is so unique–growing up in Northern India, then going to the Himalayas for boarding school. How did you bring your unique story to this film, as an immigrant yourself?
SINHA: I grew up in India until I was 13, and moved to America. In fact my parents moved there before me, and left me in the Himalayas. They said, “We’ll go first. If we make it, then we’ll send for you.” Then a year later, they were like, “We’re going to make it in America, pack your life, and then we’ll meet you at JFK.” That was the longest trip I had taken by myself on a flight. And I flew to New York, and I think that was a turning point for me. Before that point, the idea of identity was really simple–I was Indian, and I lived in India. But then moving to the US, it suddenly made me realize the duality of it, it was just more complex. I was Indian, but also American, and I had an American passport. I still feel that I’m neither American nor am I Indian. And I feel like an outsider. So that aspect and that transition has filtered into my writing, from the beginning, and into everything I’ve written and directed. It seems to seep into everything I make.
But I want to make a story about outsiders. Riz is obviously an outsider, because she’s an Indian immigrant. But Dallas is also an outsider because of socioeconomic reasons. She’s a runaway from the south. And Una is an outsider and so is Jimmy [Robert Aramayo], really. I wanted to examine the circumstances for outsiders in America. Dallas and Riz find themselves on the seesaw, because they are equal–they are equal outsiders together. The film is personal, I feel. I’ve infused a lot of my feelings into it, but I also am trying to say something about outsiders in America now.
MARTIN: You see in a lot of films, such as “Bonnie and Clyde”, the fantasy of thrill-seeking through a life of crime. But in this film it’s more like “Bonnie and Bonnie”, that idea of taking life into your own hands. Also interesting to me is the “Dolly Parton” part of the film. For example, how Dallas is so obsessed with her, quoting her, wearing a blonde wig, stuffing her bra. And the symbolism in the ending when Riz and Dallas both take off wearing blonde wigs. Could you talk about what you were trying to convey through this thrill-seeking life of crime, and how the idea of “Dolly Parton” played into that?
SINHA: It’s interesting that you picked up on Dolly Parton at the end, because there is some sort of satire throughout the film. It satirizes the American dream, and Dolly Parton, in a way, symbolizes that. She says, “If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.” Dallas repeats that kind of like a robot in the film early on, but we realize by the end of it how flawed that statement really is, and how illusionary, even for someone like Dallas. Dallas is American, but if you’re socioeconomically disadvantaged, you are not going to get the rainbow. America holds up this kind of mirage, and Americans fall for it as well as immigrants. The film holds the mirror back to a narrative in America, represented here by Dolly Parton’s words, that is perhaps flawed and not true.
MARTIN: That’s so fascinating. I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan.
SINHA: I’m a big fan too!
MARTIN: What are your thoughts about being a female filmmaker in today’s industry, and do you have any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
SINHA: I do feel optimistic about how new narratives are breaking through now. I made “Stray Dolls” to challenge the way that we look at women, the way we look at women of color, the way we look at immigrants. And it was really important to me to create a film that started to explore new areas of conversation and provoke the audience to feel new aspects of the female experience, as well as new aspects of the women of color experience. I do think there are other voices like me who are challenging everything we’ve seen so far, and sort of breaking a new mold. And I’m seeing more and more of that. I recently saw “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”–
MARTIN: My favorite film of last year!
SINHA: It’s so exceptional. So beautiful. It’s films like those that come along and just give you so much hope for new exciting voices to come onscreen.
And then for emerging female filmmakers I would just say trust your instincts. If you have an instinct for something you think is really interesting, I think most people are going to tell you it’s not. But it’s because they don’t find it interesting, it’s you who finds it interesting. I would just say if you keep on going back to something worth pursuing, it’s worth spending time doing. Even if you get a lot of no’s, or get rejected from funding or grants or labs, it’s worth continuing to push through. I think if you find it interesting, and you’re the only one who finds it interesting, I feel there’s something to be said for that. Those are the voices we need right now.
“Stray Dolls” is streaming on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, On Demand and Fandango.