Speaking out with ‘Shut Up Sona’

Singer Sona Mohapatra’s documentary premiering at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne this month covers everything from protest art to gender disparity

Is Sona Mohapatra and Deepti Gupta’s documentary Shut Up Sona the kind of story you only get to tell once? “Let me tell you, there’s a ‘Please Sing Sona’ sequel that’s happening,” Mohapatra says of the film based on her ‘unrelenting fight for an equal space in modern day India’.

Irony and wit are among the narrative devices of Shut Up Sona, which is currently getting its Australia premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne this month. Originally slated to take place in theatres, a worrying wave of Covid-19 cases in the city caused organisers to launch it virtually. For Mohapatra — who had her own billboard at Times Square, New York, in July as part of the Spotify ‘Equal’ global campaign — and filmmaker-cinematographer Gupta, this was an addition to the tumultuous four-year journey of making, editing and showcasing the documentary. Slated to release on an OTT platform later this year in India, it shines the spotlight not just on the musician and the pushback she receives for being an outspoken, sometimes mercurial woman in India, but also the state of cultural discourse.

At the festival circuit

Gupta says it originally started with just the two friends taking on the project, being joined by Mohapatra’s partner, composer Ram Sampath, as well as editor Arjun Gourisaria. “We were both learning everything for the first time. All the well-wishers came up saying, ‘Oh, you did an India premiere now (so) none of the big international festivals are going to take up your film’. That was heartbreaking, because we didn’t know any better,” says Mohapatra of the film (produced by her) that had its premiere at the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) Film Festival in Mumbai in 2019.

Nevertheless, the team persevered to take it to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2020 and several other countries. Gupta says, “I think we were a little bit surprised in the beginning, but at the same time validated, knowing that if you truly speak something from your heart and do the very best that you can, it will speak to people.”

Battling the system

Counting the film as a “symbolic catharsis” for both of them, Gupta was driven by not just Mohapatra’s music but also her continual battle against systemic, patriarchal issues. “There are many notes that the film is hitting like how when we protest as an artist for equality, what is the price to pay for it professionally,” says Gupta, referring to the times Mohapatra has taken the music industry to task.

Sona Mohapatra (right) and Deepti Gupta | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The singer recounts, “I was being accosted and literally ambushed in my house by a reporter from a news channel.” Gupta was coincidentally at Mohapatra’s house, after they had wrapped up shooting a music video, gathered around for tea time on a Sunday evening. Mohapatra recounts, “Deepti thought this was an opportunity for the documentary. But that camera person who had come with the reporter started telling Deepti which is a better place for her to shoot me from, and started directing her. She captured that.”

This, along with the sequence of Mohapatra watching a male-dominated mixed doubles match featuring Roger Federer, are left in Shut Up Sona to “leave an unconscious impression on the viewer”, according to Gupta. Mohapatra feels documentaries are not that well understood in India among the masses, but the popularity of OTT platforms is changing that and Shut Up Sona fits right in. “It’s not one of those artsy, niche documentaries. It’s a fully masaledaar, musical, gaali-galoch film… everything else that you would not expect,” concludes Mohapatra.

Shut Up Sona premieres at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne on August 26

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