It is very hard to silence Sona Mohapatra.
She’s an interviewer’s boon and bane. A simple question can result in a meandering monologue in which she will regale you with stories, experiences, and her thought process—and throw in an occasional song into the mix. But “Shut Up Sona” is a constant refrain that the singer, who produces independent music besides singing for Bollywood movies, gets to hear.
Whether it’s about gender equality, equal rights for the LGBTQ community or #MeToo, Mohapatra has been one of the few Indian entertainment stars who has been consistently vociferous in pointing out inequity and demanding change. As a result, she’s been on the receiving end of lots of hate, ranging from being trolled online to threats of physical harm.
“I noticed that whenever Sona wanted to speak her mind, she would be told to shut up. Or just focus on her singing. She would be told, ‘Why are you talking? Why do you want to talk about social justice issues? You have a nice voice. Just stick to what you do best,’” says Deepti Gupta, the director of Shut Up Sona, which makes its North American premiere& at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, conference and market. The festival streams online from May 28 to June 6, 2020, with some titles available for an extended “post festival viewing window until June 24.” Shut Up Sona will be available to view until June 10, 2020.
“In India, for women, whenever you want to speak your mind, you feel like you’re told to keep quiet all the time. Not to protest,” says Gupta. As one of the few female cinematographers in the Indian film industry, Gupta had faced such admonishments and challenges in her own professional life.
Her interest in cinema came from a childhood spent watching a variety of Indian films, made in several regional languages and including works by award-winning filmmakers such as Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, on the state-run television network Doordarshan. She’d also taken over her father’s Canon Rangefinder camera when she was 5, and carefully chose her subjects given that she only had 36 exposures in a film roll.
However, as a student at FTII, India’s best known film institute, she was told there were no female predecessors for her to look up to. People would frequently question how an “itty-bitty woman would be able to lift a 20 kg camera.”
“What was happening to Sona in the music business was no different from what was happening to me, or to many women in their respective professions,” Gupta adds. “Constantly having to prove yourself, the fact that to succeed the only choice women have is excellence … If you ask for equality, you are a troublemaker. Sona is as much trouble as a woman can be.”
Part of Gupta’s insight comes from her 15-year-long friendship with Mohapatra. She first heard the singer’s throaty voice as part of the soundtrack while shooting The Fakir of Venice (2009).
“Her voice can put you in trance,” Gupta says.
A year later, Mohapatra reached out to Gupta to direct a song, “Aaja Ve,” from her debut album Sona. Turns out that Mohapatra had seen some of Gupta’s work, and wanted to collaborate on a visual project that other people in the industry considered outlandish. The video also features then relatively unknown actors such as Rajkummar Rao and Vijay Varma, who have since gone on to become in-demand stars in Bollywood.
“Everyone was into disco in those days,” Mohapatra says. “Whereas I wanted to shoot in real places in India, in the village. Wearing dhoti (a type of Indian wrap pants) with a shirt, and silver jewellery. Deepti got it … I wanted to shoot a video that was timeless. And to this day, people still reference that video.”
Even as a child, Mohapatra says she stood out. She was a bright student, an ace at sports, and towered over other women at 5 feet 9 inches. Then there was her voice, classically trained in Hindustani music.
“I didn’t have that sweet melodious voice,” she says. “It was always deep. I was constantly asked to sing Tina Turner songs at family gatherings.”
Her drive to speak up comes from an early appreciation of the injustices around her, starting right at home. She was acutely aware of how hard her mother worked, not only running the household but also holding down a job, while her father expected to have his shirts ironed and towel handed to him as soon as he stepped out of the bathroom.
“For me, it’s not just about feminism … It’s about fairness, and justice,” she says.
Over the years, Gupta and Mohapatra had talked about collaborating on a film project. However, when Mohapatra started to explore the mystical poetry of Mira, Kabir and Khusrau in a contemporary context, Gupta found an appropriate metaphor for her muse. Gupta could see elements of Mira—an Indian princess who abandoned her marriage and a life of royalty to pursue her love for the Hindu god Krishna—in Mohapatra.
As the documentary points out in a scene, while Indian societal norms sanitizes Mira’s love for Krishna as divine, Mira’s poetry in fact also delves into her sexual and rebellious desires. It’s a path that Mohapatra also navigates, in her own way.
Filmed over three years, Shut Up Sona focuses on a period in Mohapatra’s life when she was fighting a few fires.
In December 2016, she took on one of India’s most prestigious educational institutions—the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). She pointed out that IIT Mumbai’s popular inter-collegiate festival Mood Indigo did not showcase female artists as headline performers. If the festival did reach out to artists such as herself, it was with the caveat that she perform alongside her husband Ram Sampath, a well-known Indian music composer.
In May 2018, Mohapatra filed a complaint with Mumbai Police stating that a Sufi religious organization had threatened her and asked her to remove her version of “Tori Surat,” a famous song by Khusrau by Khusrau from all media platforms. The group took issue with Mohapatra’s dress and “earthy incarnations of the feminine Divine,” she explained in a tweet.
The documentary shows Mohapatra trying to negotiate the systems that often shut women out. She usually fights these battles on Twitter, itching to write a response—even as family and friends advise her to think before she tweets. These tweets often bring a barrage of troll responses, as well as solidarity on social media.
While Shut Up Sona does a fine job of depicting Mohapatra in all her glory—wisecracking with her makeup artist and stylists, jamming with her band and roaring onstage—it’s the quiet, behind-the-scenes moments of silence that are revealing. They show the emotional toll of being that woman who is constantly raising hell with her voice.
These are the smaller fights, with herself and those who love her. While her husband Sampath is fully supportive of Mohapatra, you can tell there are moments when he’s exasperated with her feisty temperament. When Mohapatra visits the engineering college that she attended, and revisits her experience living there, tears spring unbidden from her kohl-rimmed eyes. Gupta lets the camera linger on these moments, without seeking any explanation.
Clearly, her friendship with Mohapatra allowed Gupta incredible access to her subject. Although Sampath wasn’t keen on being in the film, he had no choice, she says, laughing. The trick was to keep the camera rolling, and find the moments of truth in between.
“The filmmaker was always first,” she says. “No doubt it is harder with a friend. But most of the time, my decisions were split-second ones. I had to film! And that is something Sona understands and respects deeply. I was telling a larger story with Sona being the medium to tell it. The friendship enriched it, allowed me to have a deeper gaze, a more intimate access.
“For me, a documentary is not about being a chronicler of reality but rather to explore the truth—by observing and rearranging those pieces of reality.”
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.