For years, we kids in India, have grown up hearing the tales of the greatness of Lord Rama the righteous Prince of Ayodhya, the man who put his duty and word above everything else. The ideal man, the ideal son; but what about an ideal husband? Was he one? Not really, as his married life as depicted in the Ramayana would testify.
Told from an evidently feminist perspective American cartoonist Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" (2008) is a bold and thought-provoking animated feature despite its light-hearted and humourous nature. Paley's film is essentially a satirized retelling of the mother of all Indian epics, "The Ramayana", focusing on its first lady, Sita and her tribulations, juxtaposed against a contemporary parallel narrative based on Paley's own personal experience of being abandoned by her husband. Although Nina's story is hardly a proper parallel to Sita's story, the film itself exposes the other side of Lord Rama which is often overlooked in a society that is known to sing the praises of his virtuousness.
But Nina Paley doesn't make it look as serious as it all sounds. She taps her talent of animation and creativity to the fullest and weaves a breezy little film that makes use of different forms of animation. She uses 2D graphics, flash animation, flat round crude animation reminiscent of the fantastic TV series South Park and squigglevision for the snippets of the contemporary story. Annette Hanshaw's songs are interspersed within the narrative seamlessly, with the lyrics reflecting Sita's own situation as she sings the blues following critical events in her life.
To take the story forward, simple flat cut-out animation is used, and characters speak in typically thick Indian accents, and laugh or cry hysterically while the camera zooms in into their faces as they stare agape and a sudden loud musical chord is struck; a clear spoof of the old fashioned soap-operatic storytelling. When Sita breaks into the blues songs, the animation changes into flat round caricatures, with Sita being an exceptionally buxom woman who sings blues, of course, with playback singing by Annette Hanshaw.
Appearing at regular intervals between these light and funny moments are shadow puppets with contemporary voiceovers, discussing the problems with The Ramayana and pointing out the illogical nature of the story and the character actions. These are the kinds of interesting conversations almost all of the younger generation must've had at some point of time after hearing some of the laughable inconsistencies and logical fallacies of these stories that we've been led to believe actually happened many centuries ago. They may be exaggerated depictions of a true story or they may be fantastical yarns from someone's vivid imagination altogether. In fact, The Ramayana was apparently penned by Valmiki as narrated to him by Sita! The bittersweet story of Nina Paley surfaces once in a while but it takes some time before we realize how her story is exactly supposed to mirror Sita's.
Paley's use of music is ingenious and her imagination is mischievously creative. In a hilarious intermission sequence, we see all the characters in the film passing by from one end of the screen to the other, going for washroom breaks and buying themselves popcorn and beverages. So while we see a ten-headed Ravana and Rama going out to buy food as buddies, we see some of the saints and Rakshasas going out together as well.
Towards the end of the intermission, a woman from the audience is heard talking in Hindi which translates thus: "I thought this was a kids' film; hell it is not at all for kids!". Just after this funny intermission comes a very movingly powerful musical dance number that depicts the embodiment of the submissive and oppressed Indian woman in yet another variety of a sketch-like rotoscope animation. The woman dances and literally bares her soul in stark nakedness, claiming her purity and loyalty to her man. In still another intelligently written number, Valmiki teaches Rama's sons Luv and Kusha to sing Rama's praises with lyrics that very openly mock Rama. It is clever insertions like these and some wildly imaginative anachronisms (Rama sips from a cup of coffee in one scene!) that are a testament to Paley's genius.
The blues songs do get a little tedious and tiresome, especially with some numbers in the second half stretching on for about five minutes or more and hamper the pacing of the film that should actually just whizz by given its 80 minutes length.
Some strata of the contemporary Indian society continue to be plagued with issues regarding the treatment of women. Constant disrespect continues and very unfortunately, domestic violence and subjugation of women in some lower strata of society is a norm that even the women have come to accept. As a feminist issue, it is often a matter of debate as to whether deeming Sita as an ideal woman and wife, depsite her constant subjugation by Rama is an endorsement of male supremacy and female servility and deeming Rama an ideal husband is misogynistic.
Paley's film has been a target of criticism by right wing Hindu groups and it doesn't come as a surprise given the narrow-mindedness of any extremist religious group. All the controversy and troubled production process notwithstanding, "Sita Sings the Blues" is an enjoyable film, a fun take on serious issues in the great Indian epic The Ramayana that seem to have reflected in the modern Indian society as well.
The full movie is available for streaming online on youtube at the following link: