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.