Director/Writer/Animator: Nina Paley
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The great stories of civilization teach lessons and convey beliefs. Many civilizations have The Good Wife and The Prodigal Son parables. India combines these two stories in the Ramayana, an epic poem from about 1000 BC. Indians through the centuries have been told, “Be as Rama,” the prodigal son who became one of India’s great rulers, or “Be as Sita,” Rama’s good and faithful wife. American animator Nina Paley got her hands on the Ramayana after a traumatic break-up with her boyfriend Dave, and saw the story in a much different light. Her film, Sita Sings the Blues, is subtitled, “The Greatest Breakup Story Ever Told.” Since she combines the Ramayana with her own break-up, it’s anyone’s guess which story she’s talking about.
The basic story told in Sita Sings the Blues is as follows: Dasharatha was the king of Kosala, an ancient kingdom that was located in present-day Uttar Pradesh, and ruled from its capital, Ayodhya. Dasharatha had three wives named Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Kausalya, the eldest queen, was the mother of the eldest son Rama. Rama was to be king when he grew to manhood. Rama married the beautiful Sita, and they were very happy.
Kaikeyi wanted her son to be king. She reminded the king that he promised to grant her two wishes. When she asked that Rama be banished for 17 years and that her son be made king, Dasharatha had to agree. Good son Rama prepared to go into the wilderness, and Sita begged to go with him. He didn’t want her to be with him in a dangerous forest filled with demons who were pestering the holy men and stamping out their fires, but she said a wife’s place is at her husband’s side. So they went off together.
Ravana, the many-headed, many-armed king of Lanka (Sri Lanka today), was said to be a very learned and wise man, though he’s always called evil because he lusted after Sita and abducted her. Hanuman, a monkey warrior, found out that Ravana had carried Sita to his palace in Lanka and told Rama that Sita wanted him to rescue her. Rama raised a monkey army, crossed a land bridge to Lanka, and defeated Ravana. But he worried that Sita had been unfaithful to him and rejected her. Dejected, Sita asked that a fire be built that she could fling herself onto. They did so, but instead of dying, Sita survived, thus proving her purity. Seventeen years having passed, the pair took a flying chariot back to Ayodhya.
Unfortunately, Rama’s subjects did not believe in Sita’s purity. Rama banished her, though she was pregnant with twin boys. She gave birth, and Rama found her again, but still doubted her purity. She asked Mother Earth to swallow her up if she was pure. Of course, the earth opened, and Sita was taken out of reach.
A bodhisattva, clearly a woman who may have been Sita, rises out of the ocean on a lotus flower, gyrating to traditional Indian music. Next to her rises a Victrola with a bird standing on it. She reaches over, bends the bird’s beak over to play the record, and we hear the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a torch singer of the 1920s and 30s, warble a love song. The record skips at the lyric “a woman like me,” forcing the bodhisattva to hit the Victrola. The scene explodes into a riot of music and dance as the opening credits role.
The Ramayana is a story all Indians learn in childhood; it is three grown-up Indians, represented by shadow puppets, who serve as our guides through the basics of the story and whose faulty memories and modern sensibilities give Paley ample opportunity for some great comedy. For example, the commentators try to decide how long ago the story takes place, starting at the 13th century. Paley provides appropriate garb for that century. “No, no, it was much longer ago than that.” The setting changes. Finally, one commentator chimes in “BC.” A title card places the story at “A long time ago BC.” One of my favorite moments comes when they wonder whether Sita deserved her fate. After all, she could have gone back to Rama with Hanuman and kept hundreds of warriors from being slaughtered. “And monkeys!” one says. “Yes,” another comments, “what about animal rights?”
The animation style varies. When the elements of the story are simply being recounted by the commentators, the characters are stylized watercolors or stiff, cut-out images from magazines and books. Whenever Paley wishes to tell the story musically, all of the characters look like cartoons, with Sita portrayed as a kind of hinged-doll Betty Boop and the rest resembling Dudley Do-right. Annette Hanshaw provides Sita’s singing voice, trilling out such famous tunes of the time as “Am I Blue,” with Sita colored an appropriately dark blue. The film takes on a 1930s musical film quality at these junctures.
Paley intersperses the story of Sita with her parallel break-up story, beginning in San Francisco where she lives happily with Dave and their cat Lexi, going through to his temporary assignment in India and her joining him, to her flying to New York City for a conference and getting an e-mail from him saying “Don’t come back. Love, Dave.” After a suitable period of desperate longing and humiliation, Nina gets her act together, adopts another cat, and starts reading the Ramayana, revealing the origins of her idea to create Sita Sings the Blues. These scenes shorthand Nina and Dave’s emotions very effectively, and her depictions of her cats couldn’t be more dead-on and funny if she had videotaped them and inserted them in the film. Interestingly, I was worried about what happened to Lexi. Others must have been, too, because Paley adds a title card at the end assuring us that Lexi is being spoiled rotten by her new humans in San Francisco.
The film also includes a 2:30 minute intermission, during which the characters move around and get food from the concessions and audience sounds are heard. Since the film is only 82 minutes long, this was a huge joke on the butt deadeners movie fans increasingly have to endure. The curtains open after intermission to a fabulous dance choreographed to terrific Indian music that features Waking Life-style animation and quick cuts of Sita that get the audience back in the mood.
You can see exactly how all of this plays out in the trailer below:
Sita Sings the Blues is a wonderfully entertaining film packed with more great moments than I can possibly describe, with delightful animation and, if you’re a fan of torch and blues music of the 1920s and/or Annette Hanshaw, a great soundtrack. The Ramayana is supposed to teach about submitting to one’s fate, and despite the modern spin on the story, Nina learns to do just that. l