Sona Mohapatra: I was on a hospital bed when I thought of making Shut up Sona
The Qatl-E-Aam singer talks about the need for religious reform, the declining number of female artists and how the South Indian film industry is caste-ridden
Sona Mohapatra is a booming, robust voice both in her songs and in her opinions. The 46-year-old singer started her musical journey with the album SONA and songs like ‘Bolo Na’, ‘Aja Ve’, ‘Abhi Nahi Ana’ among others. She went on to sing chartbusters like ‘Bedardi Raja’ from the film Delhi Belly (2011), ‘Ambarsariya’ from Fukrey (2013) and ‘Qatl-E-Aam’ from Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016). Sona has never been shy of controversies and has often borne the brunt for speaking her mind. In 2018, during the MeToo movement, she accused Kailash Kher and Anu Malik of sexual misconduct. A Sufi organization also sent threats to her for her ‘revealing’ appearance in the music video of her song ‘Tori Surat’. Sona also has a firm stance on Twitter and doesn’t hold back while dealing with trolls.
Her documentary Shut up Sona, which recently started streaming on ZEE5, gives a candid look of the singer striving to make her space and voice her opinions in a male-dominated world. The documentary, directed by Deepti Gupta, won the National Film Award for Best Editing in the Non-Feature category. We talked to Sona about how she decided to make the documentary, sexism in the music industry, freedom of speech in the country, and how religion needs reform.
When did you come up with the idea for the documentary? What made you think this is the story you wanted to tell?
I was on a hospital bed post-surgery for a tumour. It gave me time for self-reflection which I haven’t had for over a decade. Since my first album, the music scene in our country has completely changed. I would wake up every day and think why we don’t have a music industry of our own and what we have is just a subset of the film industry. Music in India is so wide and diverse. We have Marathi abhang songs, Bhakti sangeet, Ghazals and all of that have come to the mainstream only through the filter of film music. This frustrated me. I also realised that the feminine perspective has faded out in our music and in the last few years there are not enough songs being written for women. My initial idea for the documentary was to sing and take the viewers through the length and breadth of our musical heritage. I wanted to explore my inspirations from Kabir to Meera to Amir Khusrow. It so happened that so much was happening in my life during the making of the film that it made its way into it.
Is there an active pushback against female artists in the music industry? Do events like NH7 weekender and college fests like IIT-Bombay’s Mood Indigo don’t invite female artists because they think they won’t be able to gather an audience for it?
There is a lack of nuance even in the discourse of the so-called educated folk. I won’t say there is a ‘conspiracy’ against women and active machinery to silence their voices. The fact that I will not be allowed to perform at college fests unless it is an all-women’s college suggests that we as a society at the grassroots level are normalizing that only a male performer deserves the spotlight and is the ‘greater hero’. Women artists are just used as decoration to beautify a male performer’s stage. That is being normalised everywhere. Even in reality shows only male artists win and be it man or woman everybody votes for them. The thing is that the industry is not actively trying to shut us out, they are just not aware of the discourse. And it is my job to make you aware.
Even female singers in the mainstream are way less than male singers…
I sang a song called ‘Soch’ for the Akshay Kumar-starrer Airlift. I got the song after the success of ‘Naina’ from Khoobsurat. But I was removed from ‘Soch’ and Arijit Singh was made to sing it. I don’t blame Arijit for it but I am sure Akshay or the producers had a hand in it. It might be because the makers decided to picture the song on Akshay and only Arijit’s voice could be used.
You have talked about South Indian films taking over Hindi films…
I should say this, the films in the South are more ‘Indian’. Bollywood on the other hand seems to have lost its love for Indian aesthetics. But when we say that the Hindi film industry is nepotistic and has been accused of giving opportunities to just six families, it should also be underlined that caste runs deep in the South Indian film industry. I know about the Telugu industry and even film distributors there will be Kammas and Reddys and so on. In today’s day and age, it is very disturbing.
In the documentary, you have shown that Sufi organizations filed an FIR against you for singing and featuring in a Sufi song while wearing ‘revealing’ clothes. In today’s time when fact-checker Mohammed Zubair is being arrested for tweeting a meme or the backlash against BJP’s Nupur Sharma’s comments against the Prophet, what is your take on Freedom of Speech in the country?
I feel religion needs to reform itself. You may not like somebody speaking up. You can express hurt or disappointment in different ways but to give threats and to say that we are enraged enough to kill or shoot you is not acceptable. Islam needs to relook in terms of its reform. The time is now. They need to stop being offended and be a victim all the time.