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Just days before the opening of last year’s Mumbai Film Festival, India had its #MeToo movement after dozens of women went public with allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men in Bollywood, business and politics. One year on, the festival’s lineup includes the documentary Shut Up Sona, a no-holds look into the life of singer Sona Mohapatra who takes on India’s deep-rooted patriarchy while also fighting for gender equality in the music business.
The 90-minute film marks the directorial debut of cinematographer Deepti Gupta, who followed Mohapatra over three years capturing the singer’s various battles with music industry execs as well as documenting her rise to becoming one of the most outspoken voices in India’s #MeToo movement.
Gupta is among the growing number of female cinematographers working in the industry in India with credits including Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd and Fakir of Venice in addition to helming music videos for Mohapatra.
Drawing on India’s rich folk and classical music traditions, Mohapatra’s credits include popular songs such as “Ambarsariya” and “Bedardi Raja” from the hit comedies Fukrey and Delhi Belly, respectively. In addition, she also performed on the popular show Satyamev Jayate, which tackled various social issues and was hosted by superstar Aamir Khan, that aired on Fox’s Star India network, now owned by Disney.
“For me she is one of the most inspiring people today because she speaks her mind about everything,” Gupta tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding, “Every now and then she is told by people to just sing songs and not talk about other issues. She is trolled all the time for what she says, but she is fearless, she is unapologetic.”
One of Mohapatra’s most high-profile battles has been with well-known Bollywood composer Anu Malik and singer Kailash Kher whom she accused of sexual misconduct and who was also accused by other women during last year’s #MeToo wave. Malik has been a long-running judge on Indian Idol, which airs on Sony Entertainment Television and when the allegations first surfaced, the network dropped him from the show. However, Malik was recently reinstated for the latest season which sparked an outcry.
“While I have been very vocal about many issues, to be honest, there was no set agenda when we started making this film,” says Mohapatra explaining that she and Gupta, who both co-produced the film, thought it would be a discovery about Indian music and that “we will probably cover the journey of an artist, which, in India, usually comes down to Bollywood playback singing.” But during the making of the film “a lot of things started to happen and in that sense, its not a traditional documentary.”
In between her touring and music video shoots, the film follows Mohapatra as she questions the organizers of leading music festivals such as Mood Indigo, organized by the Indian Institute of Technology, as to why female artists are not given top billing. On another front, she battles threats from a Sufi religious group who consider her music video for the song “Tori Surat” “vulgar,” leading her to reach out to the Mumbai Police for assistance.
So how was it to open up her life in front of the camera? “I have this open book approach, I speak my mind, I don’t think strategically,” she says, adding, “Its always from the heart and it has served me very well. What is outside is inside.”
But a year after India’s MeToo movement, some leading figures who were called out have managed to work their way back into the system, leading observers to wonder whether the movement is fizzling out.
Mohapatra says that while there are many people who feel disheartened, “I am not so full of despair, I haven’t lost hope because I believe that change does not happen overnight. There is a consciousness that has grown, there is an awareness that has gone up. I hear from crewmembers like my makeup artist who tells me that every time she goes on a set, they are all made to sign forms which have contact numbers where they can get in touch with people in case they are troubled in some way. All these are not minor changes at all. They are actually significant changes in a systemic manner.”
Gupta also agrees that there have been some positive changes, “I have been part of meetings with the producers’ association where guidelines have been put in place which says that every call sheet has to have a number for anyone to call and report any harassment.”
But Mohapatra also admits that “I feel days of extreme vulnerability and extreme anger and despair thinking how is it possible that all these people [who were accused of misconduct] are back on their jobs and back in their positions of being celebrated.”
As for Malik’s return to Indian Idol, Mohapatra says, “I am not letting go of this fight. I plan to reach out to Sony Pictures International in the U.S. because there the MeToo movement has been much more successful simply because women have found themselves at various levels of the power structure. They are not just there as pretty faces. So its yet to happen here where women are not in many positions of power.”
In terms of how the film could contribute to the cause, Mohapatra says she was concerned whether the film could have a journey outside India given that she does not fit the stereotype that Western audiences are used to in that “everybody lives in a slum or is in deep despair or doesn’t have sanitary napkins to use and then we will somehow see that as a significant story to empathize with. In my case, I am not really one of those have nots.”
But she is not overtly concerned about the film having “a journey in the West because I know it will make an impact here where it matters most.” She also expands that “there is this deep need to win your accolades abroad and then come back and that works for a lot of films probably because there is a lesser understanding of that kind of cinema here. But for me, I am seeking the impact here and the most glorious thing is that we are starting our journey from India. And from here we will definitely take a roaring trip across the world.”
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