Sona Mohapatra on her documentary's world premiere at Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival, and never 'shutting up'
Sona Mohapatra talks about the world premiere of a documentary on her, Shut Up Sona, that she has produced, at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival.
The camera focuses on her dramatic face when singer-songwriter Sona Mohapatra’s honeyed-rustic voice jets into ‘Bekhauf… Aazad… Jeena Mujhe’ (I want to live my life with freedom and without fear). It could bring anyone to tears. I make sure to point that out because prolific cinematographer Deepti Gupta’s documentary Shut Up Sona is about not only the singer but also the filmmaker behind the lens. Co-authorship takes forefront even now as I feel I am writing this article with Sona, and not on Sona.
More than that, as she spells out, every artist in their individual and collective capacity, is responsible for exposing the world to an alternative narrative, especially in India, since the country has been in throes of deep-rooted patriarchy for decades.
In a scene from Shut Up Sona, she enters a popular mosque in the hometown of her idol Amir Khusro only to realise women are not allowed to offer flowers to the shrine inside the religious place. She also asks the custodians of the mosque whether women have been invited to perform or sing at the mosque. To which, the man replies women’s singing or talent should be restricted to home and not spill over to the public domain.
“I entered that mosque with trepidation, not knowing what would happen. But the people there treated me with so much respect. After I spent hours with them, and I asked them whether I can sing with them. They agreed after a bit of hesitation. And when I sang, I thought people would come inside from the streets to charge me. But they were all very appreciative and in awe,” says Sona, at the world premiere of Shut Up Sona at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival.
“I feel this is the responsibility of artists... to present an alternate view. Nationalism is rising all over the world. I don’t have a problem with that but for everyone to believe the majority will decide their view for them is dangerous. That is where artists should come in,” says Sona, who also feels there is a dearth of artists who are courageous enough to present a counter-view.
“I’m glad I continue to take a stand, in a country where great artists like Mira, Khusro, and Kabir have existed. There have been alpha females in other parts of the world, like Beyonce, who made Homecoming, Madonna, who made Truth Or Dare, and Lady Gaga, who made Five Foot Two.
In India, I think this is the first such attempt to produce your own story. I knew no producer would back this project so I did it myself. As artists, male or female, we should take charge of our own narrative instead of just cribbing about why there isn’t a support system."
She confesses she has always felt a sense of sisterhood with the director of her documentary, Deepti. This also creeps in into the film as Sona is frequently heard asking Deepti, as the filmmaker cranks the camera on her, “Chashma hatau kya?” (Should I remove my glasses) and “Deepti, khana khaegi kya?” (Will you eat something). Deepti’s responses and queries also make their way into the film, though they are represented by only her voice, since she is also the principal photographer of the film.
This feeling of sisterhood, in the form of co-authorship, makes Shut Up Sona unique than most Indian biographies in recent memory.
Sona says while she let Deepti into every aspect of her life, she also made sure she has to be honest since hers could not be a hagiography, like a recent one on an actor being glorified despite his claim he slept with 300 women. “I’m talking about Sanju, in case you didn’t get it,” she says, trademark foor-in-the-mouth humour intact.
Sisterhood, she confesses, is a feeling that still evades the Hindi film industry. In the film, when the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay did not invite her for a solo act at their cultural fest Mood Indigo, claiming there is a paucity of female artistes in India, she reached out to a lot of the female artists in the country, asking them to support her #IExist social media campaign but much to her disappointment, no one responded.
“I would love to say there is a sisterhood in the industry. But there is remotely not. I think sugar-coating things will not help. Though I’d add the sisterhood is beginning to form now. We’re all struggling here. Which is why the #MeToo movement wasn’t as impactful as it was in the West. They have a large number of women across hierarchies and stages. A lot of the content you see on Netflix, is good women-led subjects, like The Good Wife and Hannah Gadsby in stand-up. They blow up. But in India, we’re getting just started. We need women to support more stories. I’m not in despair. We’ve had a great start,” says Sona.
Sona called out music composer-singer Anu Malik and vocalist Kailash Kher in the #MeToo movement last year. While Sona was thrown overnight out of her singing reality show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa (which was celebrating the first woman judge in 25 years), Malik was reinstated as a judge on Indian Idol. “He and Kailash Kher remain unaffected. But I’ll keep getting louder and louder, and take this film to the entire world,” she says.
But Sona adds she has recently found a sisterhood in the core committee of MAMI. “It’s not an easy time to have a festival in India. We’re going through an economic slowdown. To have women like Smriti Kiran, the Artistic Director of MAMI, and Anupama Chopra, the Festival Director, it’s truly inspiring.”
Sona believes the #MeToo Movement entered India because she feels the society is far more receptive now than what it was some time back. That is why she never feels a void when she talks about issues openly. She feels she is being heard. “I feel we live in good times. We don’t celebrate the world is getting at a place. Except a lot of the flora and fauna has been wiped out. Forty percent of the wildlife species are no longer there. But in terms of human rights, we’ve come a long way. Till 60-70 years, the so-called most progressive nation didn’t have voting rights for women. Right now, the cauldron is spilling over. There is a tribe that is fighting the good fight every day. Overall, I don’t think we are in doom. India is set to be the future of the world.”
Does all the noise around her never get to her then? “No battle is won without a fight. I need more quietude for my riyaaz, for my craft. But I keep finding it in pockets. I do find moments of extreme calm and beauty. Mostly because I have the blessing of music in all my life.”
It is interesting Sona puts it that way because the film also oscillates between her musical concerts, training sessions and her me-time moments where she is sitting quietly on a boat or by a river. And then gradually, organically, you hear a mild hum coming out of her. Slow yet persistent.
Shut Up Sona had its world premiere at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival.
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