Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues

In the Ramayana, Sita is abducted by the demon Ravana, and Ram assaults Ravana's island stronghold with an army of monkeys in order to free her. Once Ravana is defeated, Ram repudiates Sita because she has lived with another man, and Sita undergoes a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness. Later, after Sita and Ram have returned to his ancestral city Ayodhya and Ram has been crowned king, he banishes the pregnant Sita to the forest because his subjects are whispering about how she lived with Ravana. Both of Ram's repudiations, of course, are entirely unjust.

Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues (2008) is an animated film that combines a retelling of the Sita-Ram story and a (presumably autobiographical) frame story about two lovers named "Nina" and "Dave" who have a messy breakup when Dave gets a job posting in India.

Memsaab has written an excellent review of Sita Sings the Blues. So I won't do a full review here, but I did want to comment on a couple of aspects of the film that worked particularly well, at least for me.

The first is its very creative mix of different animation styles. The Ramayana is related in a brilliantly colorful style that evokes in turn Indian miniature paintings, shadow puppetry and popular posters. When early jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw's songs are picturized as part of the Sita-Ram story, Sita is depicted with the comically exaggerated features of an Indian Betty Boop, while Ram looks something like a blue-skinned Dudley Do-Right. Meanwhile, the frame story is portrayed in washed-out colors an almost freehand style, in contrast to the Ramayana scenes that explode with color and detail.

Another element that works (hilariously) is the narration of the Sita-Ram story by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally and Manish Acharya. It reminded me of the narration of Wagner's Ring by the opera house stagehands in Sing Faster! The Stagehands' Ring Cycle (1999). The Sita-Ram narrators exemplify two key aspects of the Ramayana--first, that it originated and is sustained as an oral tradition; and second, that there are many Ramayanas. Each teller has his or her own interpretation of the story. In fact, there are versions of the tale in which the demon Ravana is viewed sympathetically, or even as a hero. The narrators seem to be aware of these alternative traditions, and are constantly raising questions about how each of the characters should be viewed.

The final element is the incorporation of Annette Hanshaw's songs into the telling of the Ramayana. I'd been unaware of Hanshaw before Sita Sings the Blues, but thanks to Paley's film I've discovered just how fabulous she is. A friend has sent me a disc of her songs, and I've been listening obsessively to her versions of many 20s and 30s standards. She's a straightforward vocalist--she doesn't employ the sort of deliberately idiosyncratic style that singers like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone or Sarah Vaughn would later bring to these same songs--but there's something deeply appealing about her frank, unadorned singing style. And endearingly she ends almost every song with an offhand, "That's all." Paley's use of Hanshaw's music in this context is sheer genius.

But...what doesn't work so well, at least for me, is the frame story. For one thing, the trajectory of Nina and Dave's relationship is pretty predictable. I mean, you don't accept a job offer in India and leave your lover behind for months on end (as Dave does) if you are totally committed to a future together. And frankly, neither Dave nor Nina is a very appealing character: he's noncommital, opportunistic, and basically a weasel; she's too clingy and dependent (though, which of us hasn't been in the position of being more in love with someone than they are with us?).

For another, the parallels between Nina-Dave and Sita-Ram are dubious, to say the least. What we're supposed to understand is that each woman exhibits utter devotion to a man that's not worthy of her. Dave dumps Nina by e-mail, while Ram repudiates Sita twice, despite her chaste rejection of Ravana while she was his captive. But as a king, Ram must take into account factors beyond his own personal happiness. In fact, my understanding of Indian culture is that fulfillment of one's obligations is considered the highest virtue. This may strike us individualistic Westerners as odd, since for us there is no greater good than maximizing our personal happiness. But it makes me skeptical of cross-cultural affinities that are claimed too easily. While Paley clearly intends the film as a critique of the figure of the long-suffering woman, there are too many differences between the cultures in which Sita and Nina's narratives are embedded for Sita to be "a woman like me," as the skipping record during the opening sequence has it. (Of course, Paley might claim that culture is a patriarchal construct that obscures correspondences between women's experiences; while I don't deny that those correspondences exist, I think the parallels Paley's trying to draw are a just bit too forced.)

But despite my reservations about the frame story, I strongly recommend Sita Sings the Blues. Nina Paley is distributing the film for free under a Creative Commons license, and asking for donations to help recoup her substantial costs. If you watch the film on YouTube or via one of the other free distribution channels, please send Paley a donation through the Sita Sings the Blues website (click on the "donate" link on the menu, or send a check to the address she supplies). And for a fuller discussion of the film and the issues it raises, I recommend Memsaab's review.

Update 27 August 2011: Unfortunately, the delightful video clip of Annette Hanshaw performing Harry Woods' "We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye" on something called "Captain Henry's Showboat" has been taken down.


  1. Excellent review, and very nice to get a guy's point of view on it. I wondered while watching it if it might not be a little "too" female-oriented for men to enjoy...

  2. One move you will not regret!

    Get the Sita DVD on

    Or rent it on Netflix,

  3. Memsaab, I do want to make it clear that I very much enjoyed the film--my only hesitations relate to the Nina-Dave frame story.

    And I hope I didn't give the impression that it's too female-oriented for men to enjoy--I'm someone who weeps at the end of Pride & Prejudice, after all. I will, say, though, that Dave's actions early on spell out pretty clearly that (despite an occasional perfunctory long-distance "I love you") he doesn't care whether the relationship continues--I wanted Nina to realize sooner that he wasn't worth it. And the parallels to Sita and Ram seemed pretty strained. (There's an entire tradition that says that her second banishment is apocryphal, and that they remain together after her rescue--see R. K. Narayan's version, for example (Penguin, 1998)).

    Pooja, thanks for suggesting some other ways of watching Sita!