Sona Mohapatra makes an assertion early in Shut Up Sona, filmmaker Deepti Gupta’s gripping profile of her. The singer says she’s a performer first, and an activist second.
The problem with that remark is, her very existence as a popular singer in India, especially as a solo act, makes her wildly controversial and a de facto activist. As the title of the documentary implies, it has led to huge amounts of misogynist attacks on Mohapatra, with many trolls emboldened by their ability to attack via social media.
Gupta says she was inspired to make the film because many of Mohapatra’s experiences mirrored her own, working as one of India’s first woman cinematographers. “Sona and I have been friends for a decade and a half. We’ve shared our experiences as artists, Sona in the music business and me in the film industry. A similar story had been unfolding for both of us. Our conversations were often about the gatekeepers that keep women out.”
Shut Up Sona includes concert footage of the chart-topping singer performing before adoring crowds, dealing with strange questions from journalists and arguing for equal treatment with her male counterparts. There are also quiet moments of intimacy as Mohapatra confides her frustrations with various career roadblocks to her husband and manager.
The film is celebratory and revealing; watching it, you can sense the friendship between filmmaker and subject, even though Gupta doesn’t insert herself in the action. “It was like this film was hiding in our relationship for a long time,” says Gupta. “I had directed a few music videos for her and had been observing her journey very closely. She was literally carving out a space for herself against all odds and was becoming a music star. When she asked me if I’d like to do something with her in 2016 what she had in mind was our shared love for music of India and its rich cultural traditions. Shut Up Sona grew out of a catharsis of sorts. In Sona, I saw a feisty woman who wants to sing, is relentlessly asking for equality, and is constantly being told to shut up by her country—a country that is uncomfortable with her emancipation. For both of us, it was an act of taking one’s narrative in one’s own hands.”
Gupta says capturing the singer’s spirit on screen was tricky, due to the very fact that she is a celebrity, and thus very conscious of a camera in the room. “Sona was very open. But one must remember that she is a celebrity, and for a celebrity having a camera around doesn’t mean ‘bare all.’ In fact, it means quite the opposite—it means you are observed, you know you are observed, and, therefore, you choose to make certain statements and act a certain way. There are always masks… So it was weeks of filming before I could get under the public persona that would automatically be ‘on’ when the camera was around. I had to get to that place where I would be the friend alone in the room with her, but with a camera and a sound crew! That was the shooting part of the challenge. But once that comfort was established, I found in Sona a very brave protagonist. The biggest challenge was to film the parts with her and her husband Ram, and for me that was the key to the story. In those scenes my presence brings about a sort of discomfort which, I guess, is palpable on the screen.”
Gupta says the film was a collaboration, quite literally as Mohapatra is a co-producer. “We produced the film together and put our hard-earned money into it. However, despite being the primary producers, she (Mohapatra) never questioned or exerted any influence on the cinematic decisions. It truly became a journey of two people who stand by each other as artists.”
Gupta pauses when I ask her if making a film that captures the rather extreme misogyny in Indian culture took an emotional toll. “I’ve not been asked this so directly before, but yes it was emotionally hard. The film brought into sharp focus, for us, all the discontent that had been brewing for a long time. I realised through it that it was time to say: enough of this bullshit!
“The music business and the film industry are both feudal, nepotistic and gendered and I don’t want a place in it with people who will only be inclusive if you dumb down your voice. Sure there are some exceptions now, and thank heavens for that! Sona is a living testament of the price you pay for protesting—you are told to shut up.”
India’s film industry is opening up, but Gupta says it’s at a very slow pace. “It’s no coincidence that it was during the filming that I co-founded IWCC (Indian Women’s Cinematographers Collective) with my colleague Fowzia Fathima who conceived of it. Many of us had been talking about the exclusion of women in the film industry (there is a trickle now!). Some of us who did well did so in spite of. It was like plodding though a marshland. Exhausting.”
But while specific to India, Gupta points out that the story is universal, and that sexism and misogyny know no borders. “In Sona’s story I was telling my own too, and that of many, many women. There is misogyny and patriarchy built into our religions for centuries. Observing Sona’s protest wasn’t just inspiring, but also made me understand the languages of my own protest. Hers is a vocal protest, one that threatens to tear down a system; and mine a sort of quiet resistance expressed through my work. The seeds for both lie within women’s discontent with the system. They lie in our intimate relationships, in sitting across tables with our closest partners—our feminist partners—and hearing the echoes of the battles we are fighting in the world outside.
“For me, the story was personal, specific and yet universal. The references to the screaming voices of women in the Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) movement, sexist statements by Indian politicians and the sequence of the tennis match with Federer were important for me to say that this is every woman’s story, in every society.”
Shut Up Sona screens at Hot Docs’ online festival.