A review of Sita Sings the Blues, a film by Nina Paley
Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love, live together in San Francisco, and get a cat. The cat is cute and snuggles with them. They all live happily ever after.
Until boy gets a job in Mumbai. Then they are no longer happy–especially the girl.
Sita Sings the Blues is banal enough at the beginning, with a tale of ill-fated modern romance told in nondescript animated sketches of the joys of domesticated love. This was my second viewing, and even more than the first time around, I wondered if this was really the best entree to one of the world’s great, epic tales of swash-buckling erotic heroism: The Ramayana.
Inevitably, I came to the conclusion that this was, in fact, the perfect entree. The Ramayana, a 1000+ year old Indian epic, may be old but it is the farthest thing from irrelevant. By the end of Sita Sings the Blues, it is apparent that paralleling the stories of a 21st century urban couple from the United States and a deposed king and his kidnapped bride in primordial India could not be a more precise comparison.
I love it when I’m wrong.
To make an epic of 50,000 verses brief: The Ramayana is essentially the story of political intrigue and sullied love. Due to the unfeeling hand of fate, and the even more disinterested pronouncements of dharma (duty), just as Rama–the epic’s namesake and an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu– is to be crowned the king’s successor, one of his father’s wives (not Rama’s mother, clearly) invokes a vow the king made to her many years before, granting her one wish. It could be anything within his power to fulfill. Her request? Banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years. Her aim? Get her own son on the seat of the throne. The result? Rama and his shamefully devoted wife Sita venture out into the wild. There, Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka). The rest is the story of Rama’s heroic battle to vanquish Ravana and rescue Sita, only to abandon her later because the kidnapping has sullied her reputation. Having spent the night “in another man’s house,” willfully or not, calls her moral fiber into question. When he returns to Ayodya to reclaim his throne, Rama determines that he cannot rule and keep Sita in his house; her “checkered” past has undermined his subjects’ respect for him as king.
We are filled in by a trio of Indian shadow puppets, which acts as the Chorus in Sita Sings the Blues’ would-be Grecian melodrama:
Shadow puppet 1: If you’re a girlfriend, who’s being treated really badly, by, like, her ex or her current boyfriend or whatever, and she keeps say, “I’m gonna cook for him and send him a hot lunch every day at noon,” aren’t you going to turn around and be, like, “Listen, he doesn’t talk to you, he doesn’t like you, you’ve gotta move on!” Something’s wrong. okay? Sita’s doing this puja to Rama everyday [after he rejects her]…Sita has her own stuff going on.
Shadow puppet 2: Well, I think from her perspective it was, like, unconditional love, you know?
Shadow puppet 1: Yeah, but you shouldn’t love someone who treats you so bad–
Shadow puppet 3: Who treats you so badly–
Shadow puppet 1: Yeah.
Nina Paley, the filmmaker and animator extraordinaire who created Sita Sings the Blues, is to be praised both for the independence of spirit that comes through in each frame of her film, and the artistic innovation that transforms a moralizing legend into a somewhat tawdry, highly engaging critique of such moralizing.
Paley draws out Sita’s crucial, and often overlooked storyline. This is a retelling of the Ramayana that exposes its uncanny conformity to certain plots in Sex and the City (Carrie and Big, anyone?). The blindly devoted and breathtakingly beautiful Sita is not just another devotee of her wildly righteous husband, Rama. She’s a dynamic woman who’s been disappointed in love and must, if unwittingly, remake herself out of this disappointment.
Sita Sings the Blues gives Sita dimension and a voice–literally. Throughout the film, Sita is given a number of incarnations, variously inspired by Indian miniature painting, popular devotional images found for sale at Indian temples, and Nina Paley’s own artistic imagination. For Paley, Sita is a women of great complexity. Her reverence for her man is not her only quality–she has many sides to her womanly spirit. She is capable of great love, but she is also a survivor and an artist.
She can also turn her tribulations into highly affecting melodies. Sita is a storyteller, and the blues is her medium. From beginning to end, Sita sings her life in the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a 1920s jazz vocalist. She is an homage to the likes of Billy Holiday and Karen Carpenter: tragic, powerful, beautiful, and complicated.
There have been many contemporary cinematic renderings of the Ramayana, all meant to glorify the banished king and his adherence to the rule of dharma. Sita’s place in these renderings is also as an exemplar of dharama, and a female’s role in that scheme: unwavering and total subordination to her husband.
Sita Sings the Blues does not rewrite the Ramayana. But it does force some questions about how far removed (or not) us moderns are from stereotypes of feminine virtue. It makes Sita, and her journey, the epic’s often unsung star.
(Best of all, you can watch Sita Sings the Blues online for free!)