Musician Sona Mohapatra, in filmmaker Deepti Gupta’s 90-minute documentary, Shut Up Sona — a close look at the musician’s life and career fraught with battles for equality, a war of words, and controversies — opens up about her irreverence and non-conformist views. “My mother used to be in tears... Not only had she popped three daughters, on top of that this one child is mad,” says Mohapatra in the documentary. The candid statement is said effortlessly. So much so that it hangs in there, defining the social constructs of society and a woman’s place in them.
The cinematographer for films such as Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd and Fakir of Venice, Gupta makes her directorial debut with the documentary that has Mohapatra as its lead protagonist. Having known her for 14 years, she documents the singer on-and-off stage and follows her as she questions patriarchy and gender inequality in the world of music. The film takes one through Mohapatra’s #MeToo battle with composer Anu Malik and singer Kailash Kher, and controversies around her song Tori surat ke balihari, which was called “vulgar” by the Madariya Sufi Foundation, as they were uncomfortable with the clothes she wore in the video. Tying it together are a few good men and women like Amir Khusrau, Meera, Kabir and 17th-century poet Sultan Bahu, among others, whose poetry she sings at her concerts. “I saw that she was standing up for things and how she was being treated in Bollywood in a certain way. What interested me even more in the last few years is that she has been reinventing songs by several mystical poets who were questioning the social order in their times. Here is an artiste who is trying to make this music modern so that the youth listens to it and understands what these mystics stood for,” says Gupta, 45, who followed the singer for three years to create the film.
Gupta has known Mohapatra for 14 years. She has previously worked with music composer and Mohapatra’s husband Ram Sampath on a few commercial projects and has been the director of photography for some of Mohapatra’s music videos. But according to the filmmaker, the singer never once interfered in the creative process. “She puts her money where her mouth is and I deeply respect that. It took me a year and a half to show her the first edit, and she didn’t want to change anything,” says Gupta.
In the film, Gupta also takes us inside Mohapatra’s home and tries to explore the way her fight for equality affects the dynamics at home with her husband. “There is a tug of war even with someone as supportive as Ram. When you are that hellbent on fighting for equality that you don’t care how it affects your career, it will become a negotiation at home,” says Gupta.
“Liberal values is a bad word right now,” says Mohapatra to Sampath while discussing the legal notice from the sufi organisation. He replies, “There is a classical liberal concept... don’t turn everything into a circus.” While Sampath walks away, Mohapatra stays quiet. It’s a vulnerable moment, with tears in tow, shot deftly without a sound engineer. “I needed to be sensitive here. I am aligned with her politics. But I am also attempting to understand the other side,” says Gupta.
The title comes from people asking Mohapatra to “stop talking and sing”. “She is trolled heavily all the time. So I started seeing what it means to be a woman in the country who protests, and what is the price to pay for that,” says Gupta, who decided to be a cinematographer when she was about five, after a trip to Kashmir where her father let her see the valley through his camera lens. “I didn’t know then the details of what it entails,” says Gupta. At FTII, she was the only woman graduating in cinematography in her batch. With hardly any female predecessors, Gupta set out to work in the industry with a few film projects. She also did several commercials, apart from helming music videos for Mohapatra.
Shut Up Sona was the official selection (spotlight) at Mumbai Film Festival (2019) and was recently screened in Rotterdam. The film will open the 16th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival at IIC on March 5