Cannes Marché: Singing out for Sona

Cannes Marché: Singing out for Sona

Mumbai-based Deepti Gupta’s Shut Up Sona (sold internationally by Brighton-based Espresso Media) has provoked howls of fury in India, the director tells Business Doc Europe.


The film’s subject, singer Sona Mohapatra, is an irreverent and outspoken figure, often cited as “the face of the Indian #MeToo movement.” Conservative and patriarchal forces within the country are discomfited by her sheer outspokenness in exposing sexism and inequality within Indian society.


Gupta is a cinematographer by training. She is also a marketer and publicist extraordinaire. India may not have a tradition of funding and distributing theatrical documentary but she has been working tirelessly to get the film, which had its international premiere in Rotterdam, seen as widely as possible. It has been continuing its documentary run with screenings everywhere from Hot Docs to Sheffield.


When Gupta was beginning work on the documentary, she was told by some colleagues that “you won’t be able to raise finance for this film because your protagonist is a rich, talented, beautiful woman. There is no struggle there.” The “naysayers” also warned that no-one would want to see the film abroad. 


Gupta’s gut instinct told her that the film would find an audience. “I don’t think I ever felt for a moment that the world won’t be ready to receive it. I thought it was a universal story and that everyone could relate to it.”


She financed the film herself with support from Sona. “We are the co-producers of the film and we both had a fire in our belly because we felt the story had to be told.”


Gupta first met Sona around 15 years ago when Sona asked her to direct a music video. Sona and her partner and husband Ram Sampath (a well-known composer) had noticed Gupta’s work as a cinematographer on documentaries, pop promos and commercials. Three years ago, Gupta and Sona decided to make the documentary.


Shut Up Sona has serious themes. Watching it, audiences are given a sense of what it has cost Sona and Gupta for (as the director puts it) “protesting and raising our voice.” At the same time, both were determined to make the film “fun” and not to lecture the public. They’ve been gratified by the response at screenings from Bombay to Rotterdam which have seen audiences laughing and clapping. (In Rotterdam, the then-festival director Bero Beyer even joined the dancing on stage.)


Gupta is one of the founders of The Indian Women Cinematographers’ Collective. Her involvement in the group came partly because of her experiences after leaving film school. “I quickly realised that I may want to be seen first and foremost as an artist and a cinematographer but what people notice about me first of all is my gender.” She has a small build and was frustrated that she had to keep on telling people that, yes, she was capable of carrying a 20 kilo camera and all the other equipment too.


“There was always too much to prove and it took me about 14 or 15 years to realise that you can’t really parry the perception.” It was time, she decided, to take matters into her own hands. Forming the collective was a way of “encouraging other women” into a field that has been dominated by men for too long. “They don’t have to keep hearing this rhetoric that there are no women behind camera because that is not really true anymore.” The collective now has 90 members. “Anytime anyone needs technical help, it takes 30 seconds for someone in the group to respond,” she says of the co-operative spirit. The collective sends its members to festivals around the world and lobbies on their behalf, continually, for example, asking again and again why so few female cinematographers are hired on the biggest Bollywood films.


Shut Up Sona may have provoked debate about the ingrained sexism within Indian culture and the Indian media but Gupta has no illusions that change will happen quickly. “In India, a lot of women spoke out but all the men who were questioned [about harassment and abuse] are, after a short sabbatical, back in the power positions…the whole patriarchal machinery is so geared to having these men hold onto their privilege. It’s impossible to put them out of it, impossible!”