The documentary Shut Up Sona begins and ends with popular singer and composer Sona Mohapatra in concert, her cape trailing behind her as she punches her mic in the air before adoring fans.
Mohapatra’s full-throated voice isn’t deployed only in the service of music. As the film reveals, Mohapatra’s outspokenness on political issues and her public persona as a fearless and combative artist have earned her popularity as well as notoriety and censure. Mohapatra most recently renewed allegations of sexual assault by music composer Anu Malik, which had led him to being briefly dropped from judging the talent show Indian Idol in 2018.
On Thursday, Mohapatra called out cricket Sachin Tendulkar on Twitter for praising the contestants in the Sony Entertainment Television show and criticised the network’s decision to reinstate Malik.
Mohapatra’s stand won her praise, especially from singer Neha Bhasin, who said that she had been harassed by Malik years ago. But it also brought out the trolls.
It appears that the naysayers were winning at the time Shut Up Sona was being made, between 2016 and 2019. Mohapatra gets into a public spat with the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay for refusing to give her a solo platform at its annual student festival Mood Indigo. The festival organisers want Mohapatra to perform alongside her husband, the composer Ram Sampath, and the singer gets emotional as she weighs her response. Mohapatra later claims that her run-in with IIT-B led her to briefly being dropped from other college festivals.
The fight for equal representation of female performance artists, which is part of the larger battle for women to express themselves freely and honestly, spills over into other arenas. Mohapatra gets threats for the music video of the Sufi-themed song Tori Surat, which features women in dresses of short length. Obscenity charges trail Mohapatra at press conferences and television debates. Why was she wearing a halter-neck top or cleavage-revealing gowns while singing bhajans and the poetry of Amir Khusro and Mirabai? Why isn’t she being respectful enough while interpreting bhakti poetry or spiritual verse?
Mohapatra also gets death threats for lambasting Salman Khan’s tasteless remark that he felt “raped” while shooting for the film Sultan in 2016. Ram Sampath is depicted as a source of comfort and restraint, advising Mohapatra to hold her fire before dashing off her responses on Twitter. “I never do things with so much strategy,” she says.
Mohapatra’s give-no-quarter public battles are contrasted with her spiritual journey towards a greater understanding of the works of such mystics as Amir Khusro and Mirabai. “Artists who go beyond just entertainment are just my kind of artists,” Mohapatra says in the film.
After a premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 17-24), Shut Up Sona will be screened at a few more festivals before distribution plans are shored up.
Shut Up Sona is designed as equal parts concert film, fly-on-the-wall documentary, and road movie. Director Deepti Gupta, one of the few female cinematographers around in Hindi cinema, has known Mohapatra for over a decade. Gupta has directed the music videos for the singer-songwriter’s tunes, including Aaja Ve, Diljale and Shyam Piya.
“I love her voice and music, and I have also been observing her journey,” Gupta told Scroll.in. “I would read everything she wrote on social media. Of late, she has been trying to sing a lot of Mira and Khusro. I found her going back to mystics who were questioning the social order. There was a lot of reflection in her as an artist, and I had to find cohesion and get a whole picture. The tone is tempered between activism and fun and music.”
Among the film’s original titles were Lal Pari Mastani, inspired by a red-robed Afghan woman who, Mohapatra had been told, would defy the Taliban and sing freely and fearlessly. Another title was Hashtag I Exist, but that was until filmmaker Aditya Bhattacharya watched the documentary. “He said we should call it Shut Up Sona, and we fell in love with the title.” Gupta recalled. “Sona never lets up. The film is about women who are always being told to shut up but don’t want to, and end up saying something that we need to listen to. Sona embodies that spirit. In her, I found a very inspiring person who talks about protest and how important it is to persevere despite the difficulties.”
The documentary has been produced by Mohapatra and Sampath through their OmGrown Films banner. Gupta asserted that she had a free hand while making the film, and that it would not have been any different if there had been another producer.
“Sona had mostly financed the film, but it was an open playing field,” Gupta said. “She was open to any grey areas. In fact, she would tell me, if you want to talk about any weaknesses, I am totally on board.”
Mohapatra’s back story doesn’t find too much space in a film dedicated to her present. We learn that she is one of three sisters, and was a rebel from an early age. Mohapatra’s travels include a visit to her hostel at the College of Engineering & Technology in Bhubaneswar.
“There were tiny snippets that give us insights into her story, but the struggle and lack of acceptance are universal theme in a film that is about the particulars,” Gupta said. “This would have taken film towards hagiography, I felt. Sona embodies any Indian women who is looking for equality. Her equation with Ram, the push and pull and negotiation between them, were the personal aspects.”
For Gupta, the film resonates on a personal level. The 45-year-old cinematographer is a rare woman in a male-dominated sector of show business. At the Film and Television Institute of India where she studied, Gupta was the only female student in the cinematography course. “I didn’t have predecessors, and people expected me to shoot only certain kind of stuff,” Gupta observed. “Everything had a gender tag even when I didn’t want it to be that way. The film is about Sona, but the theme is also universal. And it doesn’t stop even when you are successful.”
The documentary includes a sequence from a mixed-doubles tennis match in 2018 played by Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic against Jack Sock and CoCo Vandeweghe. The men keep lobbing shots at each other, resulting in a rally. The women wait to be noticed and step off the court in an open display of anger and amusement. The men continue to play.