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July 22, 2009

9

Movie Review – Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues is a captivating re-telling of the Indian epic poem the Ramayana from the point of view of the hero’s wife Sita. Sita the film is the idiosyncratic, original, inspired work of an American animator named Nina Paley.

The story in a nutshell: When Rama is banished from his homeland by his father the king, his wife Sita follows him into exile. Their idyll is shattered when Sita is abducted by a king of another country who covets her for her beauty. Although Rama rescues Sita, he repudiates her because her purity has been tainted. Through it all, Sita is ever-constant in her devotion to her husband.

The tale is narrated by three shadow puppets drawn in traditional Indian style. The puppets are superimposed over comically exaggerated drawings of the main characters that illustrate or provide counterpoint to the narration. The narration itself is structured in the sense that it tells the story in chronological order, but the puppets contribute a running color commentary in free-form fashion.

The narration is one of four inter-woven narrative strands, each animated in a distinctive and distinctly different style. In establishing scenes providing the framework of the story, the characters are drawn in profile and stylized formal poses. The compositions are largely static and when the figures do move they hold their poses. Wikipedia informs me the drawings strongly resemble an 18th century Indian tradition of brush painting, and they certainly look like a contemporary updating of a traditional, formal painting style.

Paley was inspired to make the film after her husband left her without warning, her personal experience giving her a newly engaged, sympathetic understanding of Sita. Normally I wouldn’t bring up the filmmaker’s personal life (as irrelevant to the work, or at least as of no interest to me), but Paley made her life pertinent by inserting an autobiographical contemporary story told in parallel to Sita’s story. The contemporary story is animated in jittery line drawings, or in technical terms (per Wikipedia): a method of computer animation, called Squigglevision, where the outlines of figures and objects are in constant undulating motion.

The fourth and final narrative strand was my favorite. It’s a series of musical numbers animated with a bold, unusual modern technique called vector graphic animation, where (Wikipedia again) points, lines, and geometrical shapes are assembled to represent figures and objects. (You can see an example in the still accompanying this post.) This segment uses bold, bright colors and foregrounds the characters against spare landscapes. All of the songs in the musical numbers are 1920s recordings by Annette Hanshaw, a popular jazz singer of the period; all chronicle a woman’s love and are organized to follow Sita’s downward emotional trajectory from bliss through to despair; and all are played in their entirety.

There are a lot of big laughs in this film. Sita Sings the Blues has a playful tone, especially in the narration and the musical numbers. The narration is characterized by spirited debate among the narrators, incongruous modern language, and irreverent analysis, while the musical numbers are more often than not wryly humorous in both the drawings and the juxtaposition of lyrics and plot. But Sita is also deeply respectful of the enduring power of its millennia-old source to speak to its hearers. The narrators’ speech may be flippant, but they debate seriously the characters’ motives and feelings. The uncanny appropriateness of each Hanshaw song to the action it accompanies keys us in to the story’s emotional universality, while the reflection Sita’s story unexpectedly finds in Paley’s autobiography bridges the culture gap.

It’s criminal that a movie this good doesn’t have a distributor. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at a local film festival, but everyone can at least watch it at home because Paley has made the film available for free download. Visit this page for more information about downloading Sita Sings the Blues.

4 stars

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jul 23 2009

    Good news! Sita Sings the Blues is now available on DVD! Get it from Amazon or Netflix on July 28!

    [New York, NY – July 20, 2009] – This July, FilmKaravan, in partnership with Vista India Digital Media, proudly presents its first DVD release — the beautifully animated and wittily narrated debut feature film from Nina Paley, SITA SINGS THE BLUES — through Amazon, Netflix and a vast network of South Asian wholesale stores nationwide. Brimming with charm, humor and a soundtrack comprised entirely of haunting vocals from 1920s jazz legend, Annette Hanshaw, whose old jazz and blues recordings give voice to Sita, this adult-friendly cartoon offers a personal and thoroughly modern adaptation of the great Indian epic, The Ramayana.

    For more information, visit http://www.filmkaravan.com

  2. Nir Shalev
    Jul 24 2009

    I got it today at home in HD/720p and am going to watch it very soon. I will not divulge my methods of having procured it, though.
    It looks great.

  3. Jul 24 2009

    That’s great Nir! The film is intentionally available for free, and bringing it to Amazon and Netflix just widens the existin audience, so do tell all your friends and family about the film after you have watched it. Also, if you would post your review, which can be as brief or detailed as you’d like, to both sites (Amazon and Netlix) you would be helping increase the film’s ratings, and in turn, helping Nina Paley sell more DVDs!

    Thank you!

  4. mike maccollum
    Jul 24 2009

    Sita Sings the Blues will also be shown on (what is presumably) a big screen at 6 PM on Saturday, July 25, at the University of Notre Dame’s Browning Cinema, in South Bend, IN. This showing is part of the Arts at Notre Dame Kids World Film Festival.

    (Unfortunately, I can’t make it to that festival- and I had to miss the screenings at the Indianapolis Interational Film Festival, too. I look forward to seeing Sita, though; it sounds great!)

  5. Nir Shalev
    Jul 28 2009

    I finally watched it and it was amazing. I can honestly admit that I haven’t seen anything like it before in my life and am glad to have seen it.

  6. Helen
    Jul 30 2009

    To summarize our off-line conversation: unique and wonderful.

  7. Jul 30 2009

    Please leave your comments on the Netflix and Amazon pages – it truly makes a difference to the sales/rental of the film and helps spread the word about this wonderful film.

    Thanks
    Pooja

  8. Helen
    Jul 31 2009

    I’m actually inactive with Netflix at the moment (workplace demands, sad to say), but I’ll be happy to leave a comment on the Amazon page when I’m there. I plan to buy a copy of the DVD for my parents.

  9. Nir Shalev
    Jul 31 2009

    I’ll probably get the blu-ray one day. Honestly, just to have it.

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