Movie Review – Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
by HELEN GEIB
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.