by Priya Patel – University of Florida
Directed by: Nina Paley, Sita Sings the Blues. 2009. 82 min
I’m not usually a fan of animation. If Pixar is not involved, I generally don’t give it another glance because I tend to automatically associate animation with the child-orientated cartoons that my 22-year old brain has deceivingly convinced itself of not enjoying anymore. However, I came across Sita Sings the Blues in a film class of mine about a year ago. This feature length animation depicts the ancient Hindu epic, Ramayan, and being the horrible barely-practicing Hindu that I am, I felt the slightest bit guilty for not being entirely familiar with the source material. But this article really isn’t about my insecurities – it’s about the incredibly creative and humorous interpretation of Nina Paley’s version of Ramayan.
The film employs several different animation styles (including rotoscope and silhouette) to weave the tale of Sita and Ram while also incorporating Paley’s own personal narrative – the motivation for the film. Paley is neither Hindu nor of Indian descent (more on that later), yet she spent some time in India following her husband who took a job there. In the process of visiting New York, she discovered him to have sneakily and abruptly divorced her. As a consequence and a coping method, as much art comes to be, she used Ramayan as a way to create a film that expressed her own interpretation as it related to her life. And so much of the film, despite expectations of accuracy to the sources material, presents a personal and highly original piece of work.
The story of Ram and Sita — a long and complicated tale, boiled down to love, kidnapping, loyalty, and particularly in this version, womanhood – is presented through the narration of three silhouetted figures. Much of their commentary has a contemporary sass and humor – largely credited to the voice actors who participated in a mostly unscripted and opinionated discussion. Some of the best laugh out loud (not to be mistaken for the average fake, text filler, lols, but the real thing) moments are due to the organic and relatable conversation that the narrators provide for the film. These shadow puppets are not only aligned with traditional Indian shadow puppetry, but their discussion is a reflection of the strong history of oral culture in India – that is the tradition of passing down stories from generation to generation.
Another creative feature of this animation ties directly into the title – Sita Sings the Blues. Literally, a story of Sita ‘singing’ the blues (which is really the voice of late 30s jazz singer, Annette Hanshaw) is interwoven into the rest of the tale. It’s particularly interesting to see the singing and dancing, which directly aligns with Bollywood style (and is a common feature of animations as well), and yet Paley utilizes the voice and music of an old-fashioned American female blues singer. (The rest of the music in the film is used in the background throughout and is in Indian style.)
As I mentioned earlier, there were critiques about this film. Among the complaints, conservative Hindus and left-wing academics both, questioned Paley’s ability to portray such a sacred text and conservative Hindu groups in particular, were offended by the Sita slanted interpretation in which Paley chose to tell the story. And academics were more concerned with the fact that Paley as a white woman was attempting to represent a subject, which in their opinion, she had no authority to represent. Ultimately, in a case like this, where there is a person who creates art from a source material outside of their own culture, and furthermore when said source material holds a great amount of cultural weight and notoriety, opposition seems inevitable. Personally, I think Nina Paley has done a terrific job of writing, directing, and animating this film. Maybe my love would slightly be diminished if I was more familiar with the Ramayana and felt that this work was somehow blasphemous to the original, however I have to argue against this idea of cultural possessiveness. That is, we are obviously living in a globalized world where art, along with everything else, is becoming easily accessible to everyone with free time and an internet connection. Immigration, outsourcing, travel, tourism – all of these trends have become reality of our world, and are complicit, contributing factors in the creation of this film. I’d say it’s definitely a good thing – just don’t use pop culture or one person’s perspective as a cheat sheet guide to literature, religion, history, etc.
It’s a niche film, but visually stimulating, quirky, and thoroughly entertaining. And a bonus – it’s free! The whole movie is available on YouTube, and according to Paley’s website for the film, she has released all copyright claims to advocate a “shared culture,” where art is distributed to the community and made accessible to all.