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Modern day Sita Sings the Blues

Ramayana is revisited in a modern day interpretation in the film 'Sita Sings the Blues' by Nina Paley. Uniquely styled with Nina's own water colours animations, use of Indonesian shadow puppet theatre, Indian voices for characters and Annette Hanshaw's numbers, 'Sita Sings the Blues' takes the viewer on the quest of a woman's love lost and cry for equality by drawing parallels between Rama's wife Sita and the film's protagonist in whom we see traces of Nina's personal story as well.

 

Sita Sings the Blues

 

With the vision of making her art accessible to all, Nina has released the film under the Creative Commons Share Alike license with which anyone can watch and freely download the movie legally*.

 

For the unitiated, Rama's wife Sita is a Hindu goddess who follows her husband on a fourteen year exile to forest, leaving the life of a princess behind her. While living in the forest, she is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. Rama fights a battle to rescue Sita but after winning the battle, he refuses to accept her on ambiguous grounds. This scenario from this age old Hindu mythology struck a personal cord with the director Nina Paley who first read the Ramayana in India after following her husband there on a work assignment. The couple's marriage does not survive. Nina's husband decides to break up with her via email. Shocked and pained, 'Sita Sings the Blues' is Nina's interpretation of heartbreak and helplessness in the face of ambiguity. She admits that Sita Sings the Blues is her own Ramayana retold.

 

The film opens in modern times with an American husband moving to India on a work assignment. In a parallel story, we are treated to shadow puppets with collage characters in the background relating the epic of Ramayana through an unscripted dialogue in Indian accents. They narrate both the ancient tragedy and the modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the epic which earns its tag-line 'the greatest break-up story ever told'.

 

The film has used a wealth of visual traditions associated with the Ramayana by engaging multiple narrative and visual styles to create a highly entertaining yet moving vision of the Ramayana. Visuals include Nina's own water colour animations, fake miniature Mughal paintings and the expressionistic rotoscoped scene. Musical numbers, choreographed to the jazz vocals of 1920s radio star late Annette Hanshaw, feature a cast of hundreds: flying monkeys, evil monsters, gods, goddesses, warriors, sages, and winged eyeballs. And true to the old American musicals, and as a homage to Bollywood, there is even an 'intermission' in the film.

Sita Sings the Blues- Poster

 

'Sita Sings the Blues' (2008) is Nina Paley's first feature length film. Earlier she had done short animations 'Dandaka Dharma' (2005) and 'Fetch!' (2002). Nina is a long-time veteran of syndicated comic strips, creating "Fluff" (Universal Press Syndicate), "The Hots" (King Features), and her own alternative weekly "Nina's Adventures." In 1998 she began making independent animated festival films, including the controversial yet popular environmental short, "The Stork." In 2002 Nina followed her then-husband to Trivandrum, India, where she read her first Ramayana. This inspired her first feature, Sita Sings the Blues. 'Sita Sings the Blues' got Nina a 'Crystal Bear - Special Mention' in Best Feature Film category at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008 and the 'Emerging Filmmaker Award' at the Denver International Film Festival the same year. Nina teaches at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan and is a 2006 Guggenheim Fellow.

 

Sita Sings the Blues- Sita drops her jewelry
The beautiful illustrations and the kitsch Bollywood style poster art straight from the 70s' mythological movies is a visual delight. Nina is a self taught animator. She animated and produced 'Sita Sings the Blues' single-handedly over the course of five years on a home computer by making some original watercolour paintings by hand, which she scanned and animated in After Effects. As for using the songs by Annette Hanshaw, even though coming from a completely different era, separate from both today and ancient India, Nina thiks that they really show how the story of heartbreak in the Ramayana transcends time and culture.

 

The film has the talents of Indian artists for voices- Reena Shah as Sita; Manish Acharya (Loins of Punjab Presents), Aseem Chhabra and Bhavana Nagaulapally for the Indonesian Shadow Puppets; Aladdin Ullah plays Mareecha and Hanuman; Debargo Sanyal is Rama; Nitya Vidyasagar plays the twins Luv and Kush, including their singing voices in 'Rama's Great'; Sanjiv Jhaveri plays Dasharatha, Ravana, Valmiki, and Nina's ex-husband; Pooja Kumar is Surphanakha and Deepti Gupta plays Kaikeyi.Singer-composer Todd Michaelsen created the title music 'Agni Pariksha'; Rohan made the music for 'Rama's Great' and the soundtrack for the trailer which is called 'Burnt Sugar'; Rudresh Mahanthappa lent his unique jazz to the scenes in American cities and adding the French touch is the French band 'Masala Dosa' whose music graces the scenes in Trivandrum. Indian artists who have collaborated on 'Sita Sings the Blues' are from different regions of Indian and have thus brought their own interpretation to the story especially during the unscripted interaction between the shadow puppets.

As it could have been expected, 'Sita Sings the Blues' has had mixed reactions in India- the lover of the art form and an artist's self-expression liked the film whereas the intelligentsia crowd and the Hindu fundamentalists rejected the film outright for an offensive portrayal of Sita, or claims of neo-colonial attitudes against the racial background of film's 'white' makers. Amidst this reaction, Nina feels that 'an artist's responsibility is to be true to her/his own vision...My first concern is Art, and Art has no life if people can’t share it'.
Nina Paley

 

True to the spirit of sharing her art, Nina has made the film freely available to her viewers through internet. High resolution, nicely packed DVDs and CDs are also available at channels such as Amazon, Fnac and Virgin megastores.

 

Website of Sita Sings the Blues

 

*However, for redistribution and public screening in France, there are certain conditions, available from the film's website, related to copyrighted songs and other areas that one must be aware of (and comply with).