Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sita Sings the Blues

An animation movie directed by American artist Nina Paley in 2008, Sita Sings the Blues tells us the story of Ramayana, interspersed with episodes of the author’s own life. A delightful watch, the film has simple yet charming animation that easily strikes a chord with the viewer.

The film begins with the narration of the story of Ramayana, shifting focus to the story of Sita’s state of unequal treatment. The brave Sita is betrayed by her husband in the end because he suspects her of being impure, for no fault of her own. Interlacing the historic Sita to her modern day jazz self, we see a Sita who sings dreamily to the tunes of the legendary jazz singer, Annette Hanshaw. The narration of the story of Ramayana is done by three Indian shadow puppets played by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya. They link the episodes of the Ramayana with natural and lively discussions of their personal knowledge and impressions of the epic. The sarcasm in many areas is blaring and gives the viewers a non-chalant yet serious observational analysis of the unfolding story.

The jazzy Sita is a symbolic satire to how she conveys messages through her songs, singing very relevant tunes to the condition of Sita in the Ramayana. Slow and steady we see a saddening state of affairs as Sita is made to suffer despite her being a faithful and courageous wife.

The film parallely shows the contemporary story of a young American couple Dave and Nina, and their cat Lexi. The couple are young and in love. Dave takes a temporary job in India and flies to the country leaving Nina and Lexi back home. Nina misses him so much that she goes to visit him in India, only to find him cold and unresponsive. She returns back home to find a cruel message from him “Don’t come back. Love, Dave.” Nina stares at the message and her heart breaks. The film so literally shows her heart break into pieces. The silence before the sound of breaking glass is haunting and hits with a poignance.

The uncanny resemblance of Sita and Nina’s life brings us to a converging point of understanding their similar stories although each is based in different time, culture and generation. Both betrayed by their lovers and separated by long journeys, brings across a universal grief shared by women who are unfairly treated by their so-called lovers. The two characters rediscover themselves and are reborn in different forms. Sita is reborn as a lotus and Nina symbolically as she finds rage and solace in the Ramayana, inspiring her to make this film.

The film is remarkable for its versatility. The lively and colorful animation in Sita’s story brings across strongly the personalities of the characters. The two stories are brought out in two completely different forms of animation. While Sita’a story is narrated in a song and dialogue sequence with vibrant colors where episodes of the Ramayana resemble Rajput paintings, Nina’s story is portrayed in a completely different animation style. The modern, more personal element of the story is narrated using the rough, energetic squigglevision technique of animation. The drawings convey the restlessness inherent in the story, at the same time bringing across certain light-heartedness, universal in its tone, with its simple, highly stylized renderings of characters and environment.

What struck me the most was the power of the visual and narrative form that blended so perfectly. For instance, the song and dance sequence after Nina gets the cruel message from Dave is overwhelmingly heartening with its montage of images, music and color. The woman dancing to Indian music in a saree, amidst fire, then becoming a mere dancing skeleton has such powerful symbolism. Nina intelligently weaves the message in the underlying humor using exuberant drawings and bright colors. The message is serious.

In April 2009, there was a petition demanding for the complete ban on the movie by a conservative Hindu group who were offended by the film. They believed the film to be a derogatory act against the entire Hindu community. Some west-wing academics accused her film of being neocolonialistic. Yet, the film has won numerous awards including awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, Athens International Film Festival and Crystal Grand Prix, to name a few.

Sita Sings the Blues is fresh, delightful, original, and disturbingly stark with its juxtaposed narrative style of music, dialogues, monologues and one-of-a-kind animation. Watch it to be amused, enchanted, moved and empowered. It is a work of sheer brilliance and inspiration.


  1. a wonderful analysis. i havent seen the movie but reading your article goads me to go watch the movie. its very true tho the injustice dat seeta had to go thru still persists in so many ways.we think times have changed n we have moved forward and all dat but things such as these prove we keep comin back to square one. as da sayin goes history repeats itself, only in different shapes n sizes. please keep up your tremendous good work

  2. How true Paroma! It's sad to see how such injustices still exist inspite of "empowerment" and forward thoughts. I think it all lies in the basic mentality of human beings. We have been so conditioned to everything around us, that sometimes we fail to question and challenge. This film is a tribute to Nina's life and her tragic experience of being betrayed. How she successfully traces back the phenomena of the woman's misery as a result of unfair treatment is astounding. I hope more such movies are made to bring forth to us how universal these underlying treatment patterns are.

  3. finally someone has realised there was much more in ramayana than just ram,and accepting that ram,being the lord of the lords had a grey shade too.... always discussed this in class but nobody dared to raise such controversial topic on the pretext of orthodox indians' resentment..kudos to the director for bringing up such a bold issue...and kudos to u for acknowedging us about the existence of this movie...hey,,do you have a copy of this movie by any chance???

  4. Hey Isha, thanks for your post. The director must be immensely credited for bringing out the layers of parochial tendencies that existed even in the sacred texts. It is interesting to see how this treatment exists even today, only in a different context and generation, but the experience for the woman remains the same. Sadly, we fail to realize the systemmatic use of power to oppress the innocent.
    I will give you the copy of the movie, as promised.

  5. The sarcasm in the imagery during the narrative is blatant yet subtle..and the meaning conveyed so strong. Many parts are a satire on mythology as we know it!..One specific example being the song sequence and the events following Rama hearing his sons singing praises to him in the forest.

    The Art work in the movie is probably the best I have seen with the music aptly matching the visualization. The music(instrumentals) during the beginning and end have a distinct effect on their own - the blend of western drums and instruments with the Eastern classical theme they produce. The music, combined with the visual creates a psychedelic effect.
    (A few people i spoke to could find any other word to describe it other than 'trippy' :-P )

    Beautifully written..great flow and a very strong analysis!
    Your love for art and the surreal combined with a keen understanding of the symbolism and your ability to add a filmmaker's angle sets you apart.
    Great descriptions of the animations, the portrayal of characters and the Narrative style that's so close to us and easy to relate.

    Parts of the movie that I can never get bored of - The Artwork, the psychedelic music, the Narrative and the intermission sequence. :-)

  6. Fee, thanks a lot for your detailed comments! Glad you brought out the critical role of the music in the film. "Trippy" it sure is, like you said, with the beautiful blend of Eastern and Western musical instruments.

    The pattern of East and West, if you noticed, also runs in the accent of the characters while they talk. The puppets with their Indian accent, and Sita in her jazzy self with a strong Western accent (while singing Annette Hanshaw) show the two distinct cultural influences.

    Ah yes, the intermission was entertaining too! Allowed us the luxury of being a part of a common audience, bringing us closer to the setting, the ambience and the characters. Quite delightful!

  7. Lovely review. Delighted to see so much love for the movie here. I had watched this almost a year back and was pleasantly surprised at Nina's delicious originality. As noted by posters above, the efortlessly cross-cultural narratives employed by Nina is what makes Sita Sings the Blues quite unique for its genre.

    And with the plethora of high-tech 3D animations from the mills of Pixar, Nina's ingenious return to traditional 2-D animation is absolutely brilliant. I'm not saying that Pixar has lost its charm. 'Up' is probably on the best animations I have seen so far.

    Which again goes to say, 2009 was a bumper year for animations - accomplished stop-motion animations like Coraline, Mary and Max, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, $9.99; traditional animations like Ponyo, The Princess and the Frog, and the immensely delightful and poignant Secret of the Kells; a mention also for 9 and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

    Most of these are Oscar noms...which makes me sort of disappointed that Sita didn't get picked this year. Anyways here's hoping we see more experimentations with concept and form in not just animations but in the art of the moving image in general.

  8. @ Nabil: I am disappointed that Sita did not get picked for the Oscars too. It's quite a class apart with its originality and strong screenplay. Thanks for sharing the other big names that have made a mark in the animation category last year. Will definitely try and watch them.

  9. Good zulfiya! You've done a good job. Keep up your spirit!!!

  10. Thanks a lot ma! :)It's your encouragement that keeps me going!