Nina Paley's independent animated film combines 1920s jazz songs with Indian mythology for a unique retelling of the ancient sanskrit epic the Ramayana.
Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, epics originally written in Sanskrit more than two thousand years ago, remain hugely popular throughout South and Southeast Asia. The stories have been retold throughout the centuries in various forms of media, resulting in versions that differ radically from each other but (mostly) maintain the same basic plot. Some recent examples include the Hindi-language political thriller "Rajneeti" (2010), the popular "Chhota Bheem" (2008-present) animated series on the Indian children's TV channel Pogo, and the live-action TV adaptations "Ramayan" (1986-1988) and "Mahabharat" (1988-1990). In "Sita Sings the Blues," Nina Paley contributes her own interpretation of the epic from Sita's perspective, retelling it as "The Greatest Breakup Story Ever Told."
The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, and his wife Sita. After being banished by his father the king, Rama and Sita take refuge in the forest. Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the rakshasa king of (Sri) Lanka, and Rama recruits a group of monkey-people including the great hero Hanuman to help him rescue Sita. After the battle of Lanka, Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya, where Rama assumes the throne. However, Sita's purity and devotion to Rama is questioned, based on the fact that she had been kept captive by a demon. Full of doubt, Rama banishes the pregnant Sita to the forest, where she raises their children. After years, Rama meets Sita and the children, and demands further proof of her purity. As a last resort, Sita declares that the earth should swallow her up if she has always been pure and faithful to her husband. The epic ends with Sita being swallowed by the earth, and her children go to live with their father in Ayodhya.
Paley's version of the Ramayana weaves together several disparate stories into a powerful retelling. The frame story, told in a sketchy, unfinished style of animation, is an autobiographical account of a bad breakup that she went through, which provided the inspiration to create the movie.
Then there are the narrators, a group of three traditional-style shadow puppets, who attempt to retell the Ramayana off the top of their heads, and often get confused. Not only do the puppets provide an amusing narration for the film, but they also provide important commentary on the plot and motivations of the characters. According to the film's website, the puppet's lines were completely ad-libbed, and the three voice actors had not met until the day of the recording.
The story itself is told through a panache of animation styles. During the puppets' narration, the characters' design is taken from popular devotional images, such as the Sita in the picture above. Because the characters from the Ramayana are considered to be divine, posters and images meant to be used in worship are easy to find and generally follow a norm that makes it easy to determine the identity of the character. Paley takes these devotional images and animates them to create a humorous complement to the puppets' narration.
More serious parts of the story are told through a more static Mughal miniature painting style. This style of painting, developed in Northern India during the 16-19th centuries, is famous for its fine details. Although it was originally developed in the Muslim courts, Hindu, Jain, and other religious images were frequent subjects, including the Ramayana.
The most original part of this film is the incorporation of songs by the 1920s Jazz singer Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985) as Sita's singing voice. Hanshaw is even credited as the star of the show! Paley uses Hanshaw's songs to express Sita's viewpoint - her love, excitement, sadness, confusion, regret. This is paired with a very cartoonish animation style. These songs convey a majority of the plot, and "Sita Sings the Blues" is perhaps best considered to be a musical created by stringing together old songs, similar to the Beatles-inspired "Across the Universe" (2007) and other films.
Through this innovative use of multiple storylines, influences, and animation styles, Paley has created a truly unique retelling of the classic Indian Epic. In the end, it is a tale of love and betrayal, mistakes made and people lost. But it is possible to rise above tragedy, as indicated by Paley's creation of this wonderful movie.
SITA SINGS THE BLUES is available for download or streaming in the PUBLIC DOMAIN from Nina Paley's website, http://sitasingstheblues.com/ and can also be found on YOUTUBE.