Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Review: Sita Sings the Blues

Figure 1: Theatrical Poster (Ebert, 2009)
  • Director: Nina Paley
  • Native Title: Sita Sings the Blues
  • Primary Language: English
  • Format: Colour
  • Year of Release: 2008
  • Budget: est. $250,000
  • Film Length: 82 minutes
  • Production Company: Independent
  Sita Sings the Blues is a 2008 postmodern animation that attempts to distill the Indian epic of the Ramayana, a legendary story that revolves around the trials of Prince Rama of Aodyhya and his relationship with the Indian dame Sita. Nina Paley's interpretation of the Ramayana focuses more on Sita, Rama's beloved who is taken to Lanka. Each chapter of the film is told by a series of four narrative devices. The first is a contemporary parable from the director's life, the second is a discussion by three Indian shadow puppets, the third is an animation of the discussed chapter designed to look like a painting, and the third is a vector graphic musical piece of what happens next, where Sita sings a number by early 20th century american singer Annette Hanshaw.

Figure 2: Throughout the film, director Nina Paley parallels the story of the Ramayana with the events of her own life. (Mediadiary, 2010)
  The film attempts to capture a sense of timelessnss to the themes of the story by relating them to a sequence of events from the director's life. "The story has parallels to Paley's relationship to her lover and their relationship is similarly tested when from San Francisco he gets a six-month job in India." (Leeper, 2009) And each stage of the story begins with a moment from Nina's love story. The way her experiences almost sync up with what Sita is experiencing in the legend drive home that the fundamentals of this tale are not bound to the ancient past. Perhaps this is what is implied when the first words of the film are a song by Annette Hanshaw played on a gramophone, where it starts skipping at the line "there ain't no woman like me." A jab by Nina that Sita's situation isn't unique, perhaps? 

Figure 3: After Nina's side is told, three shadow puppets discuss the elements and conventions of the story (Kshetra, 2010)  
  The film itself takes quite a postmodern approach towards the telling of the Ramayana. In particular the use of three shadow puppets that comment on the elements of the story as they play out. "the brief conversations between the shadow puppets that provided a postmodern commentary, taking apart aspects of the myth they took issue with like Sita's damsel-in-distress desire to have Rama save her from her captor, or the fact that, because of her unconditional love she refused to move on even when it was clear that Rama wasn't worth her time" (Vakulchik, 2014) These shadow puppets are a contemporary look on an ancient tale, and their conversations are varied such as over Rama's behavior, his coincidental meeting with Hanuman the monkey king and they even wonder if Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka was actually as horrid as the Ramayana wants him to seem. These sections are a modern analysis, deconstructing the narrative conventions of the legend, providing backstory and in some cases discussing how different society was back then. This is particularly the case when  they talk about the implied horribleness of the villain or how Sita was able to provide a breadcrumb trail for prince Rama with her jewelry despite committing to a life of asceticism in the woods. For the latter, the response from another puppet was along the lines of "don't question the details just enjoy the story".

Figure 4: The flash-animated musical numbers are overwhelmingly colourful, giving a smoothness to the rich, vibrant imagery that traditional Indian art is known for. (Fredrik, 2013)
  The stage that sticks out the most is perhaps the musical numbers. While the other sequences use more traditional-looking animation, the musical numbers are rendered digitally, yet are as stylistic and colourful as any lighthearted stage performance.  "One remarkable thing about "Sita Sings the Blues" is how versatile the animation is. Consider Sita's curvaceous Southern hemisphere. When she sings an upbeat or sexy song, it rotates like a seductive pendulum. Look at those synchronized birds overhead. When they return they have a surprise, and they get a surprise." (Ebert, 2009). It might be due to the buildup presented that these numbers often feel like a climax. Every number ends with Annette announcing "that's all", an announcement perhaps that not only is the song finished, but also that chapter in the story. Like any strong, stylistic animation, your focus is drawn to Sita as she sings, but your eyes also cannot help but observe what is going on around her. Along with the events Ebert mentioned, you have things like blue animals surrounding a depressed Sita, who were either left, or rather cruelly (but somehow humorously) kicked away by their lovers. While Sita sings about her love for Rama, he chases a golden deer while the evil king looks at her leeringly though her window.

  Sita Sings the Blues is an interesting presentation and comparative look at the story of The Ramayana that weaves the timeless tale together combines contemporary parallels, contemporary perspectives and stunning visuals both traditional and modern to tell a story that comes together rather enjoyably. Perhaps an example of how as a story progresses though the generations of oral tradition, the narrative is woven to fit the time in which it is told, but unlike other examples it still respects the old narrative. Making this a charming blend of the old and the new.


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