Jennifer Lopez and Sona Mohapatra may not be names one would club together — especially if you’ve heard how different they are musically — but thanks to two recent documentaries, we know that they have at least three things in common. Both singers have great stage presence; they’re the ones who decided they should have documentaries made about them; and finally, Lopez and Mohapatra are both very, very angry.
Shut Up Sona, directed by Deepti Gupta, is a portrait of Mohapatra pieced together out of more than 300 hours of footage, shot over three years, between 2016 and 2019. The idea of making the documentary was Mohapatra’s. Speaking to Film Companion in 2020, when Shut Up Sona did the film festival circuit, Mohapatra said, “I wanted to do something more than music and this thought came of making a film. I reached out to Deepti almost instinctively because we’ve been friends for over a decade and she’s shot some of my most interesting music videos.” Fittingly for a film made by a friend, Shut Up Sona is an intimate look at certain aspects of Mohapatra’s life. It’s not a particularly good introduction to Mohapatra in musical terms. Shut Up Sona doesn’t tell you where Mohapatra was born, who taught her how to sing or when she made her debut as a professional singer. However, you do see the two things that seem to be central to Mohapatra — the joy that music brings her, and the rage that fuels her on and off stage.
The documentary opens with Mohapatra calling out Mood Indigo — a prestigious cultural festival organised by the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay — for sexism and pointing out that barely any women have been invited to perform at the event. Later, Mohapatra draws the ire of different groups who object to her singing religious songs in ‘provocative’ attire. The most serious challenge comes from a Sufi group. When Mohapatra’s lawyer suggests she challenge their legal notice by arguing it’s a Muslim group attacking a Hindu artist, Mohapatra is adamant that this is not about religious differences, but misogyny.
Mohapatra, who presents herself as a child of the rampaging goddess Chandi, is belligerent throughout Shut Up Sona. This unflagging anger can feel monotonous even though Gupta uses it to establish just how sexist and frustrating the Indian entertainment industry can be for ambitious women. The film also includes moments when Mohapatra snaps at people around her, indicating the psychological toll this fight is taking on her. Gupta tries to add some variation through scenes like the one in which Mohapatra visits the poet Amir Khusro’s tomb in New Delhi and when she returns to her college hostel in Bhubaneshwar. In its quieter moments, Shut Up Sona drops hints that Mohapatra’s determination to defy controlling patriarchal authorities has its beginnings in her childhood home and her troubled relationship with her father. However, Gupta steers clear of the past in Shut Up Sona, focussing instead on Mohapatra’s present, which feels like one face-off followed by another.
In contrast, there’s little sign of any rage at the start of Halftime. We see Lopez celebrate turning 50 in her tour bus, with her kids and crew. She’s immaculately turned out when she’s promoting her film, Hustlers (2019). Director Amanda Micheli moves with abrupt sharpness from the feelgood conversations celebrating Hustlers (with its unconventional subject and all-woman crew) to the controversies surrounding racism and America’s National Football League (NFL). In an effort to mend its image, the NFL announces that Lopez and Shakira will perform during the halftime at the NFL’s Super Bowl event. Lopez’s manager Benny Madina cuts through the diplomacy and says, “It was an insult to say you needed two Latinas to do the job that one artist historically has done.”
The Super Bowl halftime show becomes for Lopez an opportunity to assert her identity as a Latina and turn what is an insulting gesture on NFL’s part into a mouthpiece for herself. Micheli is saddled with the complicated task of showing that Lopez is simultaneously one of the most successful artists of her time, but also an underdog by virtue of being the child of immigrants, and a person of colour in America’s white-dominated entertainment industry. The events of 2019 help Micheli with her storytelling. For all of Lopez’s accomplishments, diamonds and couture dresses, she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for Hustlers and she has to share the stage at Super Bowl.
Lopez’s rage at the world around her starts becoming evident as she and her team prepare for the Super Bowl halftime show. It begins with her decision to have “light cages” — alluding to the cages in which migrant children were being detained at the time — as part of her performance. The cages become a stumbling block when the night before the Super Bowl, the “highest authority” at NFL directs that the cages should be removed from the show. Lopez refuses. The cages remain part of her performance and her daughter sits in one of them, while singing Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’.
Although Shut Up Sona has a narrower focus than Halftime (since Mohapatra’s activities are less varied than Lopez’s), Gupta’s documentary doesn’t have as neat a storytelling arc. Neither does Gupta find a high note similar to Halftime’s conclusion on which to end Shut Up Sona. Much like most American music documentaries, Halftime makes no secret that it’s fan service and Micheli ends the film with Lopez singing ‘This Land is Your Land’ at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Shut Up Sona isn’t made for fans, but it does hope to make the viewer a fan of Mohapatra. One of its challenges is to find triumphant moments for Mohapatra after establishing her determination to fight the good fight. All Gupta can offer is the occasional show of support for Mohapatra in an online comment and a concert at the National Institute of Technology, in Warangal, where Mohapatra is able to speak freely about sexism.
“How is anyone supposed to sing through all this?” Mohapatra asks at one point, while driving on an uneven road. She tries to hold a note, but can’t because the ride is jumpy. The scene feels almost like a metaphor for how the things around Mohapatra can throw her off kilter and affect her music. The silver lining is that despite the bumps on the road and her frustration at the potholes, Mohapatra keeps singing.
Shut up Sona is streaming on Zee 5. Halftime is streaming on Netflix.