When filmmaker Deepti Gupta and singer Sona Mohapatra set out to make a documentary about music, they didn't expect it to be one of the most turbulent times of the singer's life.
Shot over 3 years and capturing over 300 hours of footage, the result is Shut Up Sona – a 90-minute film which documents the singer's various battles as a result of calling out countless instances of sexism within the music industry and becoming one of the most prominent voices in India's #MeToo movement. The film, which premiered at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival With Star late last year, will next be travelling to the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Part character study, part commentary on society, the documentary takes us into Mohapatra's personal life and examines how she and her husband, composer Ram Sampath, dealt with trolling and abuse that comes from her being branded a disruptive troublemaker. The film speaks volumes about the media and society's treatment of female artists who dare to take a stand and refuse to be silenced.
Over the phone, Mohapatra spoke to me about what she hopes international audiences will take from the film, the challenges of documenting your personal life and the positive changes she's seen in the music industry of late.
You shot the film over 3 years. Where did the idea of the film come from? Was it the director Deepti Gupta's or yours?
The idea came from me. I was a little low at the time in my career and in my personal life. I felt all doors were shutting down.
I was in a place where I said 'okay what next?'. 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. Most people knew her as a cinematographer but her journey and mine had a certain resonance in terms of a lack of opportunities and gender issues. I just thought it was the most obvious choice to make. I think we as a society across the world are at this difficult point on a lot of matters and that, as an artist, I get to capture it on film is a privilege.
The film documents a time when you were under fire for speaking up and taking a stand on many issues. Was it strange that so much happened when you happened to be filming?
It was happening by chance. We actually thought it was all over. All the furore and threats and trolling that happened after I called out Salman Khan on social media was all over by then. So when we started shooting we thought it was going to be a more peaceful period of my life. But when making it, the team was also shocked that my life had so many twists and turns.
We first thought we would go on this journey of travelling across India to explore music and the poetry of the land and that was what we wanted to make a film about, but it ended up being a film about the discomfort India has with an opinionated woman. We actually shot a lot more music performances which didn't make it to the final cut of the film. Which gave me the idea for my next film – it's called Please Sing Sona (laughs) because I don't think I have enough music in this one.
Has the response to the film so far surprised you at all?
We didn't make the film with any agenda, it was a genuine act of expression and a journey of the sisterhood of two friends setting out to do something with no real plan. Somehow, organically a lot of people have come on board to champion it like the team at MAMI, which for me as an artist was very important – to start from your home ground rather than starting abroad. And then to get into Rotterdam which I now understand to be one of the top 5 film festivals known to back independent voices, has really come as a pleasant surprise.
Because we don't fit into a typical bracket of documentary or the narrative the West mostly buys into from India of poverty porn. I am a successful singer who has my own struggles and somehow, we thought they wouldn't buy into that. Because here your protagonist isn't poor. I may sound crude saying this, but I've always felt there's that narrative of the white man wanting to be our saviour. So, we thought we wouldn't find any takers abroad. In that sense we thought that nobody beyond friends and family would watch it. But I feel very grateful that it's going there.
Because we don't fit into a typical bracket of documentary or the narrative the West mostly buys into from India of poverty porn. I am a successful singer who has my own struggles and somehow, we thought they wouldn't buy into that. Because here your protagonist isn't poor. I may sound crude saying this, but I've always felt there's that narrative of the white man wanting to be our saviour.
What do you hope international audiences take from the film?
Well, I think it's a very universal story told form the journey of a female artist from this part of the world. I recently watched Bombshell and one of the producers is Nicole Kidman. I was howling. It felt like a cathartic group hug. Because the kind of issues we as women are facing in the workspace is the same around the world, it's just the nuances and setting and context that varies. I think around the world women are taking charge of their narrative to tell their own stories. That's another thing I heard a lot in the industry which was people saying 'don't tell anyone you produced your own film, they'll think you're self-obsessed' and I said it's not about me and it's no kind of hagiography.
The film takes us into your marriage and your private discussions with your husband. Was it tough to bring the world into these really intimate parts of your life?
You know, that was entirely Deepti. She had a very privileged vantage point into my life that nobody else could have.
I'm not conscious at all whether it's on social media or on stage or in person. I'm a very open person – whatever is inside is outside. But Ram (Sampath) is a very private individual and he has been more than just a partner and people who have seen the film say he's the voice of reason. But we always thrash things out and come to some sort of an understanding. It was super hard because he's so difficult to shoot because he's shy. The problem, I remember, she kept bringing up during the edit was that the subject has this ridiculous manner of speech and doesn't take a breath and endlessly talks which makes it a nightmare to edit (laughs).
A lot of actors who have taken a stance on things have said that it tends to open new opportunities up for them as an activist but closes many for them as an artist because people see you as a troublemaker. Would you agree?
For me, taking a stand has always helped me keep on the right path. As artists, we need to have a point of view and we help shape society and reach out to larger numbers. Honestly, if you go by social media, you feel the whole country's on fire right now, but I see a lot of positive change when I travel around to the smaller cities. Infrastructure is coming up, things are improving, mindsets are shifting. There is a whole India that's changing for the better and we need to document these stories a lot more in the mainstream.
Doors do shut down for sure but many open up to. I'm one of the busiest performing artists today, and you always end up finding allies along the way. Most people in the country won't understand a woman like me. I want to take the bull by its horns, I want to stir the hornet's nest and immediately get a conversation going. Many people ask me how I deal with all the negativity and trolling. While it is exhausting, I've always felt that unless the shit is allowed to come out into the open, how else does it get cleaned? These mindsets and attitudes that are hidden in even the best of homes and it's important to engage and let the rest of the world see what you deal with on a daily basis.
Even the language the media uses when you call out something, they use words like 'lashing out'. It's hurtful and projects a person who's actually standing up for things as violent and crazy. So we need to change that.
Over the years and in the film you've also exposed a lot of sexism in the college festival circuit and music industry. Do you feel that's led to any sort of change?
It's still early days. The film has only just started its journey. And since then, on the anniversary of the #MeToo movement, the media has declared it a failed campaign saying nothing has come from it with the perpetrators all back where they were. But at that point I relentlessly fought tooth and nail to find justice in getting Anu Malik out of Indian Idol.
And I have seen a lot of positives that have come in recently. NH7's numbers for women representation has gone from 4% to close to 20% this year and it will have lots to do with the fact that for 7 years I've been relentlessly calling them out. IIT Bombay's Mood Indigo I'm sure will also start calling female artists, but I'm not going to be invited. I'm the whistle-blower, the troublemaker. It would be too much for them to call me.
Ram always saying what I've done is going to help the coming generation, but I should have zero expectation that it'll do something for me. But I feel spectacular having a film to by name and I'll make other opportunities.