Sunday, 28 July 2013

Review: Sita Sings The Blues

You can't get much more independent than this. Sita Sings The Blues (2008, trailer) is a Flash-animated film made almost entirely by one woman, Nina Paley.

On top of the heavy workload that this task already brings, Paley worked herself even harder by depicting Sita through several, completely disparate styles. For example, the 'real-world' framing of the story is shown through a simplistic, sketch-y style.

Style 1: The real world.

The main story of Sita is based on Nina Paley's real life. At the start, Paley is living in domestic bliss in San Francisco with her husband Dave and their cat. Suddenly, Dave takes a six-month job in India.

The rest of Sita (tagline: 'The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told') charts the couple's alienation and eventual split, as well as Paley's resulting despair.

This may be the 'real' story, but Sita Sings The Blues also incorporates representations of the Hindu epic The Ramayana, which mirrors Nina's ordeal in many ways.

My Take

Paley doesn't just tell the Ramayana story in a straightforward fashion; she gets much more creative than that.

In some sequences we do see a traditionally-told version featuring collaged images taken from illustrated versions of the Ramayana. However, we also hear a recording of three Indian-born people, represented in the film as shadow-puppets, trying to piece together the legend from their memories:

'Ram's father had four wives.'

'Three wives.'

'Three wives?'

'Four sons.'

'Four sons, three wives. Okay.'

'Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi.'

'And Kausalya's son was Ram. Sumitra's son was Laxman, Kaikeyi's son was Bharat.'

'I'm so impressed!'

 Style 2: The Ramayana

This dialogue features much irreverent bickering over patchy recollections, alternative details from different versions of the Ramayana, and exposure of the kind of plot holes inherent in just about every myth. At one point they hit an inconsistency over a section where a kidnapped Sita leaves a trail for Ram to follow:

'But you know what Sita does then? She drops her jewelry along the way. And that's how they were able to find her. It went all the way to Lanka.'

'How many times did she drop the jewelry?'

'She was wearing a lot of jewelry in the forest.'

'No, remember, she's not wearing any jewelry 'cause she left everything before she left Ayodhya and she came-'

'She left everything?'

'Right, she just came in her Sanyasi clothes.'

'Don't challenge these stories.'

The title Sita Sings The Blues comes from another of the film's narrative devices: at emotional key-points of the Ramayana story Sita - shown as an exaggerated, Betty Boop-alike figure - sings tunes of heartbreak and love, with vocals supplied from recordings by Jazz Age singer Annette Hanshaw.

These sequences are replete with vibrantly-colored characters, gods, animals and scenery; and humor: after Sita is kidnapped, Ram battles an army of demons to save her. As he fights, Sita sings an incongrously upbeat song that concentrates solely on her sweetheart's return:

'If my sweetie's there outside/
My arms and my heart are open wide/
Who's that knocking at my door?'

Style 3: The Songs

All of these styles are so distinctive as to even move differently. The 'real' sequences have wiggle-y, constantly moving outlines, the Ramayana/shadow puppet bits a more two-dimensional, ancient storybook feel; the songs are lilting and hypnotic. Everything is accompanied by a great score by Todd Michaelsen that uses sitars, tambouras, and the full Indian works.

Although Sita Sings The Blues is essentially a break-up story, Paley's agenda isn't just to express what a bastard her conniving ex is (although his use of the ignominious method of e-mail for the break-up made me surmise this for myself). Paley takes time to criticize her own devotion to this guy in one scene where she calls him in desparation:

'Please take me back! Please, please, please! I'll do anything, please!'

The shadow puppets suddenly appear and comment on Sita's similar devotion to Ram in the Ramayana story:

'If you had a girlfriend who was being treated really badly, by like her ex- or her current boyfriend, and she kept saying: 'No, every day I'm gonna make sure I cook for him and send him a hot lunch at noon.' Aren't you going to be like; 'listen, he doesn't like you or talk to you. You've got to move on. Something's wrong.' Okay?...I feel like this whole 'good' and 'bad' thing? That we always want people to be either all good or all bad? I think Sita also has her own issues.'

When Nina Paley was recovering from her divorce, the way she found solace and closure was to read these legends and listen to this music. Sita Sings The Blues isn't really 'about' the break-up itself; it's more about how people can both experience and create stories, music and art to help them through the difficulties of life.

In most break-up movies (Swingers(500) Days of SummerForgetting Sarah MarshallMidnight in Paris) the break-up itself is identified as a core problem, and the story resolves with the protagonist just hooking up with someone else. The underlying messages here seem to be that being in relationship is the ideal state of life, being single is a tragedy, and for God's sake find a new partner as quickly as you can.

In Sita Sings The Blues Nina Paley weathers the storm of grief and takes time on her own to regroup and meditate on what she wants for her herself now. Paley's messages are that relationships aren't everything, being single is fine; and that it's perfectly healthy to establish oneself as an individual, rather than as half of a unit.

These are the kind of realistic and inspiring ideals that are rarely posited in films and that I'm grateful to see expressed by someone.


You'd think that the freedom of public domain would make using old songs completely easy, but in making Sita Sings The Blues, Nina Paley ran into legal trouble. Although the recordings themselves are in the public domain, the lyrics themselves are still held by copyright. The $50,000 it costs to authorize the use of these songs might be chump change for a big studio film production, but this is obviously a lot of money for just one person.

As a reaction to what Paley perceives as injustice from the world of corporate copyrights, she decided to release Sita Sings The Blues free from copyright. As her website says:

'You don't need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.'

You can buy the Sita Sings The Blues DVD at Paley's website here, or you can watch it for free on YouTube with her blessing.

Further Reading

For more about animation, you can see my post about Princess Mononoke.

Screengrabs: Sita Sings the Blues was produced by Your Name Here and Funded By You, in association with Your Money. The DVD was distributed by FilmKaravan.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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