Sita Sings the Blues
Hindu gods sing, dance, and cavort merrily in the most visually intoxicating animated musical to not be released this year. Cartoonist-turned-animator Nina Paley combines the giddy jazz rhythms of Betty Boop-era Fleischer Studios, Terry Gilliam’s Python collage, epic Hindu religious films, traditional Indian art, autobiographical cartooning, and contemporary boutique advertising design in Sita Sings the Blues, her brilliant reinterpretation of everyone’s favorite ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana.
(Still lacking a distributor, as unbelievable as that now seems, Paley’s gorgeous and touching film screens November 20 and 22 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of IFP’s Gotham Independent Film Awards series. Its category, fittingly, is Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.)
Dumped by her husband via email from India, Paley discovered the Ramayana while mourning the relationship’s demise. Her therapy? Animating the Ramayana scene wherein Sita’s husband, doubting her virtue, forces her to undergo a trial by fire. In a short film Paley made in 2003, Sita sang 1920s radio star Annette Hanshaw’s version of the jazz standard “Mean to Me”; five years later, the song is now just one of several Hanshaw tracks that illuminate Sita’s ill-fated marriage to the heroic Rama (the god Vishnu’s earthly incarnation) in Paley’s 80-minute reinvention of the Bollywood musical. Hanshaw’s torchy vocals transcend time and culture, adding the perfect lilting ache to Sita’s betrayal by her spouse.
For a theological epic, the Ramayana is a lot like a soap opera. Rama continues to be suspicious of Sita’s fidelity after he rescues her from his ten-headed brother, who kidnaps Sita away to the island Lanka. Forced to prove her purity one final time, Sita begs Mother Earth to swallow her up if she has remained faithful to Rama—and the earth obliges. But Sita Sings the Blues is an action epic, too. In one of its best musical set pieces, Sita/Hanshaw croons “Who’s That Knockin’ at My Door?” throughout a colorfully stylized bloody battle between Rama’s monkey army and Ravana’s legion of demons.
No less than the Bible or Koran, the Ramayana lies wide open to interpretation. Paley exploits its drift in meaning by relating much of the story’s backbone through a three-part conversation voiced by stylized shadow-puppet figures whose conversational storytelling, commentary, and corrections are animated verbatim, spelling mistakes and all. Paley’s point is that even contemporary Indians are unclear as to the story’s details. “Don’t challenge these stories,” jibes one of the three when a character’s motivation is questioned.
Paley wrote, directed, designed, animated, edited, and did just about everything except provide the voices in this lithe and multileveled marvel. Few cartoonists make great animators, but Paley is an obvious exception. (Don’t miss the musical sequence that originates as a word balloon emerging from the mouth of Hanuman, the monkey god.) What seemed at first a strangely sexist piece of cultural exotica became a catharsis. The heavens opened in a cross-cultural collision and Nina Paley tumbled headlong into its multihued syncopations.
Sita Sings the Blues is at MoMA on November 20 and November 22