Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley: A Delicious Outrage

Sita Sings the Blues, the French poster

When I saw the poster of this animated film in the windows of my cinema in 2009, I didn’t realize that I was missing a real little treasure! Hopefully, chance and Google led me to this sweet masterpiece again a few days ago.

When I found myself on Reel13 I was immediately attracted to the drawing of that charming Indian-Betty Boop shown on my screen.

Sita is a deity, Rama’s wife and the protagonist of one of the most sacred texts in all India: the Ramayana; but here, in Nina Paley’s cartoon, Sita can sing the blues!

 

What’s the Ramayana?

 The Ramayana is a Sanskrit epic. An old wise man called Valkimi is supposed to have written the 24,000 verses and the 7 kandas ( = books ) of this holy story.

This long poem  deals with moral values, Dharma and teaches Hindus – but also Buddhists, Jainists and all the believers whose religion is based on Hinduism – what to do to be a good human being  and to maintain the great balance of the world.

All these moral rules are explained through narrative allegory. To be short, a narrative allegory is a way to avoid being deadly boring when you teach something deadly boring.

The story of Rama is more or less simple according to the versions. I will keep Nina Paley’s version. But whatever it is, it’s as exciting as a soap-opera!

Somewhere in the North of India, Bobby…well, Rama marries Sue-El…oups, Sita. One day, a villain called J.R…sorry, Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to his ranch in Lanka,- today known as Sri-Lanka but some scholars disagree about this place but never mind!-  Of course, Rama, who is a perfect man, goes there and frees his wife. Hanuman, the monkey-headed god and Rama’s faithful servant, helps him a lot in this mission.

(The article continues after this photo…)

Battle at Lanka (1649-1653)

When Rama and Sita come back home, things go wrong because Rama’s people consider that a woman who shared another man’s house for years can’t be pure anymore. So, Rama, who is a perfect man, banishes Sita. While she is away in Valkimi’s ashram, she gives birth to twin brothers called Luv and Kush. Valkimi writes the Ramayana song which praises Rama and he teaches it to the twins.

When Rama hears them singing, he realizes that the twins are his sons.

I don’t really understand the end of the story. Sita appears and then vanishes into Mother Earth; I don’t really know why, certainly to prove that she has never been impure.

Of course, versions differ according to religions or countries. In Buddhism, for example, Sita is not kidnapped by the villain Ravana. Too violent, maybe?

In Sita Sings the Blues, Nina Paley has chosen the simplest version. What changes is the feminist dimension of this film: indeed, the story is told from Sita’s viewpoint; that is why this cartoon is also called The Sitayana.

A bit daring, isn’t it?

 

Sita, Rama and Hanuman

The Sitayana: Sita Sings the Blues:

Sita Sings the Blues is a modern, uncommon and beautiful version of the Ramayana. And even if you can find hundreds of articles about this film, I wanted to write my own article about this marvelous piece of work. The plot is a bit the same as the original tale but Nina Paley added many new elements and added her own western-woman personality to the story:

First, Sita is not the only one to have marital problems since Nina Paley herself appears in the cartoon: she lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend but he decides to go working in India and he finally breaks up. This cameo is an interesting modern parallel. One can’t help comparing Sita’s situation and this today’s girl’s love story. In both cases, distances damage their relationship with their man.

Secondly, Sita’s story is set and narrated by three shadow puppets, two men and a woman, who speak in a quite modern manner, commenting on the story as if they were having a drink in an Internet Café, chatting about today’s relationships between men and women. This is quite funny and lively, especially to the viewers who don’t know much about the Ramayana.

Annette Hanshaw

At last, each episode in Sita’s adventure corresponds to a song by Annette Hanshaw, a singer from the 1920s. These pieces of collection taken from archives fit the film so perfectly that they seem to have been specially written and give Sita even more glamour and femininity.

What is really surprising when you start watching Sita Sings the Blues, it is the different techniques of animations. Each story line has its type of animation to make the narration clear. For example, in singing parts, the drawings are colourful, bright, the features are smooth, the characters have wide eyes and big smiles like in Japanese animated films. They are like sweet and glamorous interludes. On the contrary, the parts about Nina Paley’s sentimental problems have something less fairy-like, more contemporary; the colours are dull and the lines are brisk, irregular and plain like in a newspaper cartoon. As for the Ramayana story itself, Nina Paley has been inspired by traditional Indian painting; Moghul and Rajput Miniatures, so that the viewers immediately recognize these illustrations as the representation of ancient times.

Different animation techniques

The Controversy:

 Unfortunately, some people haven’t really appreciated the cheeky brightness of this little jewel.

Despite the numerous awards received and the enthusiasm of the viewers, some Hindu people felt offended.

According to Wikipedia, some left-wing academics accused Nina Paley of “racism” and “neocolonialism” – “neocolonialism” is really a sort of Godwin’s law in Western-Eastern discussions! – whereas right-wing Hindus declared it was an outrage and started a petition to ban the film – the goal was 500 votes and they got 488! Ah! Ah!  They did not like the jokes about Hanuman who is often referred as “the monkey”, which I can understand, in a way, and were shocked by the goddesses’ nudity and all the references to sex in general.

To my European mind, I find this animated film is a cure against monotony and boredom and I wish Nina Paley could make a film about the Bible, even if it wouldn’t be as colourful and glittering as the Hindu Pantheon.

Sita Sings the Blues is like a glowing Christmas tree in the polluted forest of Hollywood, a red cherry on the heavy cake of Pixar, it is girly, feminist, poetic, humorous and glamorous. This iridescent gem and its many facets is a lovely symbol of freedom; freedom in art –– Nina Paley treated Ramayana her own way –  and freedom in the way a film can be exploited – Sita Sing the Blues is being shown for free on the web thanks to the American non-profit organization Creative Commons.

So, if you haven’t watched this film yet, but I’m sure that most of you have, take 1 hour 30 in your schedule and enjoy! The Olympics are not everything! You can go to Youtube, the screen is much bigger!

 

 

Categories: Cinema, Religion | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley: A Delicious Outrage

  1. I’m very very happy as well as great full to see your love to India. and also i love to thankyou for visiting my blog. i love to travel story. here is one story about my Puri tour, http://from-a-girls-mind.blogspot.com/2012/04/puri-tour.html. thank you~ krishna

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