Sudnya Shroff, the storyteller

Sudnya Shroff, a Bay Area engineer and philanthropist has always been a storyteller through her work as an artist, author, and fashion designer. For years, she also made time to work on the ground at refugee camps in Greece. In the film Fremont, which she co-produced, all of her worlds come together in perfect harmony.

Fremont is the tale of an Afghan refugee called Donya, who lost her country but finds hope in a new world. The one aspect which gives Shroff immense pride is that many of the producers of the movie are also Indian, including Nickhil Jakatdar, Lata Krishnan, and Akash Nigam.

She told Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney of India Currents, “It is now a community of Indians, a community of Afghans, and a community of Iranians,” behind the making of Fremont.

Nagarajan Butaney spent an ‘incredible afternoon’ chatting with Sudnya Shroff and Anaita Wali Zada, who plays the lead, Donya, about their roles in bringing Fremont to the screen.

Fremont, the film

Fremont is an English-language drama about a young female translator for the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Her association with the U.S. military puts her life in danger when the Taliban retake Afghanistan. Donya is given special asylum in the U.S. and resettled in Fremont, California.

The film, in black and white, is directed by Babak Jalali, co-written by Carolina Cavalli, and produced by Sudnya Shroff among others. It has won numerous awards in film festivals around the world.  

YouTube video

For Shroff, who worked with Afghan refugees in Greece, telling this story was deeply meaningful because it unleashed her creative and philanthropic talents. Her introduction to director Babak Jalali was serendipitous.  He was looking for Afghan connections and support in the Bay Area when Shroff was introduced to him as an Indian who has worked with Afghan refugees. She initially came on as a script doctor to build connections with the Afghan community,

Being an Indian was advantageous said Shroff, because the Afghans were willing to hear the story from her. “Even in the refugee camps, I found I was so welcomed by the Afghan community.”

But Shroff quickly had to pivot into funding mode when the original producer Marjaneh Moghimi had to step away for health reasons.

“I went to all the people who have actually supported me over the last 20 years. It’s the same people who got what I was trying to do. It was the next logical step in my storytelling but in a different medium,” said Shroff.

Moviemaking as start-up

In her first foray into film producing, Shroff was involved in every aspect – casting, story writing, set design, finances, post-production as well as negotiating distribution rights. It has been a whirlwind year for her, traveling with the movie and the director Jalali to film festivals around the world.  

“In an industry where there are a lot of specialists, me being a generalist,” says Shroff was helpful.

“I was pulling from my experiences and all the different worlds that I’d inhabited. Because filmmaking is just that kind of work – fashion work helps because you need costumes. I’ve done a bunch of set designs because of my art. So a lot of stuff in our sets are paintings that I could make overnight which we could not have afforded. Being familiar with technology and Adobe Creative Suite, I was able to put stuff together,” explains Shroff.

It is absolutely like a setup, Shroff continues. You have to know “when to sweep the floor, and when to dress up and go on the red carpet.”

Casting Donya

Finding Zada was a miracle, said Shroff. “She needed to be that voice for her sisterhood. And we needed to find the right person who could represent because she is in every frame in the movie.”

A man and woman stand side by side
Anaita Wali Zada and Babak Jalali (director) (image courtesy: Sudnya Shroff)

Jalali and Shroff put out feelers in the Afghan community around the country to find their cast.  Zada heard about the movie from her host family in Washington D.C. and emailed Jalali.

Her Zoom audition convinced Shroff they had found their lead. “I could see on the screen –  we’ve been looking for someone that has just that right combination of innocence and yet a presence.” 

Zada’s older sister Taban Ibraz plays a young Afghan mother Mina, who lives in the same apartment complex as Donya.

For Zada, getting cast as Donya “was like a hope for me,” because she was homesick and filled with guilt. Playing Donya gave her purpose.

Zada gives a powerful performance in Fremont. “It was about her body language because the fundamental understanding of the nuances was so deep and almost instinctive. Her life as Anaita and Donya’s life have a lot of parallels,” says Shroff, which gives Zada’s performance depth and resonance.

I’ve found myself in it, adds Zada.

A parallel life

Zada and her older sister Taban Ibraz were both journalists in Afghanistan and inherently understood the dangers they faced with the resurgence of the Taliban.

Three women stand together
Taban Ibraz (sister), Sudnya Shroff and Anaita Wali Zada (image courtesy: Sudnya Shroff)

“I worked for three years in media and television. Like a host. And also I had my own show. It was about old cars. I love old cars,” said Zada. It was not easy for women to be on camera, but Zada did it because her mother pushed hard for her freedom and education.

“She really fought because my sister wanted to go to college and to go to work. Because my family, my dad didn’t allow it, my uncles didn’t allow her to go to work. You can study and then you get married. But my mom was like – no, it’s not gonna happen again.”

“Once you fight for the first daughter, for everyone else, it becomes marginally easier. Step by step.”

Zada’s mother did not finish school because the Taliban came into power. She was married at 15 and raised eight children. She saw progress in her lifetime, said Zada, until it was all taken away.

Leaving Afghanistan

Zada left Afghanistan on the 20th of August 2021 when she was just 21 years old.

She was stepping out – “I just told my mom I will be back, leave me some bolani” – when she got a call from an Afghan-American who was coordinating the evacuation of Afghans targeted by the Taliban. “He knew how people who were targeted could get the paperwork to get onto the Biden flights.”

Zada and her sister left within the hour. They did not get a chance to say goodbye to her mother and siblings.

“We knew we were going to Qatar,” says Zada, but only when the flight left Doha, did passengers find out they were going to Washington Dulles airport. 

The fleeing Afghan translators and people who helped the American army are being labeled as traitors in their homeland.

Today there are over 2.6 million displaced Afghans in the world. California has taken over 31,000 war-time arrivals, the majority of whom have settled in the greater Fremont region of the Bay Area.

Zada did not want to leave Afghanistan. She loved her life there but now worries constantly about her mother and siblings back home. She feels luckier than the protagonist Donya because she has her sister with her. Together, they are re-creating their lives.  Zada hopes to study computer science and acting at community college while Taban Ibraz studies filmmaking in New York.

A group of people huddle in front of a movie poster
Cast, Crew and filmmakers at the NYC premiere at First Look Film Festival @ Museum of Moving Image (image courtesy: Sudnya Shroff)

Finding a foothold in Fremont

In Fremont, the movie, Donya tries to find her foothold in the new country that she did not choose to move to. She lives a monotonous life in an apartment complex among a small community of fellow Afghan immigrants. Donya has trouble sleeping and longs for home. She struggles to share her thoughts about her trauma in therapy and is beset by guilt and loneliness. Donya channels her job at a Chinese fortune cookie factory to create a little adventure in her life, leading to unexpected connections.

Fremont is an exquisite black-and-white film that moves at a quiet pace reflective of the outer life of its characters. However, their inner lives are rich and complex, full of unexpected twists and turns. Its unexpectedly wry humor – via the zany therapist or wacky co-workers – provide the hope that is interlaced throughout the movie.

Jalali’s choice to make the protagonist a female translator was deliberate.  Donya battles sexism to get her job and now, displaced in the U.S., evinces a spunkiness, humor, and strength that are contrary to the Western perception of Afghan women.  

Donya may be powerless as a refugee in the U.S., but she has dreams, and that gives her character agency.

Storytelling that makes a difference

Donya represents everyone, says Shroff who likes being “a bridge between the philanthropy world and the creative world.”  Her mission is to free up philanthropic dollars for social impact in the arts. Shroff believes that philanthropic dollars need to go into storytelling “with films that are not commercial but with the ability of commercial reach.”

Films like these create “space for transformation in our subconscious narrative,” adds Shroff. “And it’s all going to be incremental. It’s going to be one step at a time, one story at a time, one person at a time.”

It’s also important for the Indian community to acknowledge that they are born into families which give them the freedom to choose to go to school and study, said Shroff.

“I think we, as an Indian community, especially those of us who came out of choice, there is a tendency that we love the narrative of rags to riches, the  American way,” Shroff points out. “We are actually very privileged. It’s okay to be privileged,” she adds, “but pass it forward. Do something with that privilege to even it and share what we’ve been given.”

The team behind Fremont has done just that. “One of the things about Fremont.. it’s an uplifting story… of a nonvictim immigrant,” said Shroff. “At no point is Donya without agency.  She may be sad, she may be nostalgic, but so is Joanna who’s moved from the Midwest, her best friend.”

Ultimately, the movie Fremont is about hope and possibilities, the chance of an unexpected encounter that leads to a human connection.   

Fremont was accepted at major film festivals like Sundance and SXSW. Music Box Films acquired the distribution rights for the movie. Fremont is now being premiered in theaters across the country.

Fremont is releasing at select theaters on August 25th.

Roxie Theater in San Francisco
Q&As with Filmmakers on 
Friday August 25th 6:45pm
Saturday August 26th 1:10pm 

Cine Lounge in Fremont 
Q&As with Filmmakers on 
Sunday August 27th 

Cinelounge Theaters

Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael
Q&As with Filmmakers on 
Saturday August 26th 6:00pm 

Friday,  September 1
Landmark’s Nuart Theatre – Los Angeles
11272 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Landmark Theaters

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is the Donor Engagement Advisor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She brings her passion for community journalism and experience in fundraising, having...