Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings The Blues”

This past weekend’s viewing pleasures included a long-standing, and much-awaited, resident of my movie queue: Nina Paley‘s 2008 graphically and musically eclectic reworking of the Indian epic Ramayana, Sita Sings The Blues. The movie incorporates four elements: a reworking of the traditional narrative of the Ramayana; a Mystery Science Theater-like commentary on the Ramayana carried out by shadow puppets (in my mind, the highlight of the movie); musical episodes from the Ramayana, featuring blues classics performed by Annette Hanshaw; and an autobiographical parallel tale featuring Paley herself.

Sita Sings The Blues is musically and visually diverse. The episodes from the Ramayana resemble 18th-century Rajput painting featuring characters in profile; the shadow puppets converse in silhouette about the Ramayana’s plot; the musical episodes featuring Hanshaw’s songs featuring vector graphic animation are the most modern looking; and lastly, Paley’s autobiographical tale is told using Squigglevision. The Ramayana’s sometime-baroque narrative is simplifed to concentrate on the Rama-Sita subplot and its persistent obsessions of wifely devotion and idealization of female sexual purity; the shadow puppets with their distinctive urban Indian accents showcase the ambiguously irreverent and idiosyncratic readings that generations of Indians have carried out on their epics; the Hanshaw interludes remind us that underneath the fun and games, the story of Sita, which lies at the heart of the Ramayana, can be read as a tragedy; and lastly the contemporary tale of relationship-breakdown shows us that exile, heartbreak, and rejection are perennial features of our encounters with other human beings.

Paley’s movie is not, of course, just about animation, music, and the epics. It also constitutes a statement in the modern debate over how artistic creations in this day and age are to be distributed, consumed, and paid for; Sita Sings The Blues was released under a Creative Commons Share Alike Common Attribution License. On an extra on the DVD, Paley, in the course of an interview with WNET, offers some passionate thoughts on culture control and lockdown, and how her decision to release the movie under her chosen license came about. (Incidentally, the use of Hanshaw songs almost crippled the movie thanks to the licensing rules and fees associated with them; on this and on other aspects of the movie’s positioning within the modern ‘intellectual property’ debate, it is well worth reading some of the informational material on the movie’s website.)

Lastly, according to Paley, the movie attracted some flak from both left and right – the Indian ones, that is. From the ‘left’: Paley’s movie is an act of cultural and artistic appropriation that fails to situate the movie in its correct position in post-colonial discourse. From the ‘right’: Paley’s movie is an act of cultural and artistic appropriation, which, in suggesting that modern gender and sexual relations can enlighten us about the presuppositions that lie at the heart of religious epics, and in providing a not-so-pompously-moralistic alternative retelling of a Scripture, is insulting and disrespectful of the sentiments of millions of Hindus.

When fire is directed from both flanks, all is well. Go see the movie.

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