237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

Have you had any interest from distributors?

The sales rep is talking to distributors. He’s saying, ‘Be patient.’ The distributors are afraid of the film because the film is weird. If you noticed.

You’d think that weird might be good.

Yes, weird should definitely be good, especially among these distributors who talk about how they’re into fresh, new original stuff. But they’re not. They’re the most cowardly creatures on the planet. I just got this big wave of good press, so that will make them realize it’s safer.”–Nina Paley, early Sita interview with Studio Daily

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Reena Shah, Debargo Sanyal, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Nina Paley, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya

PLOT: The relationship between artists Nina and Dave is strained when Dave relocates to India for a job. Meanwhile, three shadow puppets discuss the legend of Sita (the avatar of the god Lakshmi) and Rama (Vishnu’s reincarnation) from the Hindu epic “The Ramayana,” introducing animated recreations of the story of the love affair between the two demigods. Portions of the story are further illustrated by musical numbers where a flapper version of Sita sings the ballads of 1930s torch singer Annette Hanshaw.

Still from Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Ramayana, attributed to the poet Valmiki, tells the story of Lord Rama, the seventh human incarnation of the god Vishnu. Rama’s wife, Sita, is abducted by a demon-king; he rescues her but then rejects her, unable to cure himself of the suspicion that she was unfaithful during her captivity. The epic Sanskrit poem is composed of 24,000 couplets, was written centuries before the birth of Christ, and is considered one of the key works of Hindu literature.
  • Paley was inspired to create Sita Sings the Blues by noting parallels between the dissolution of her own marriage and the failed relationship of Sita and Rama as told in “The Ramayana.” After her breakup, she discovered the music of Annette Hanshaw while staying at a friend’s house, and incorporated the songs into the narrative.
  • Paley animated the movie almost entirely by herself on home computers (much of it in Adobe Flash); the process took three years. Although she was a working cartoonist before making Sita, she had no professional training as an animator.
  • Although universally praised in the west, Paley reported receiving criticisms from India from both the right (that the film was irreverent) and the left (that it represented a neocolonialist appropriation of Indian culture).
  • Paley originally released the movie under a liberal Creative Commons license, but later took the unusual decision to remove all restrictions and make the work a true public domain release. However, Annette Hanshaw’s music is still under copyright to its owners, so the film is not truly free and clear of restrictions (although no litigation has yet resulted from its continued distribution).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Selecting a single image from this visual smorgasbord is an impossible task. It’s likely that the characters from the Hanshaw musical numbers, with their undulating Flash graphics and comic book coloring, will stick in your memory the most: curvy, -ish Sita and her broad swiveling hips; buff, Hanna-Barbera-blue demigod Rama; and the many-headed, multi-limbed gods and demons who float through the story.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hindu big bang; flapper goddess; flying eyeball stalks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Paley is on record as suspecting that her homemade Hindu jazz epic was too “weird” to get a distribution contract. After Roger Ebert championed the film as “astonishingly original“, and it received overwhelming praise at festival screenings, the “weird” talk died down. It shouldn’t have. Sita is weird. It’s a proud, purposeful, defiant re-connection with humanity’s weird mythological roots, with primordial legends of hybrid god-monsters whose bizarre appearances only serve to magnify their very human foibles. Add in psychedelic animation, torch song musical numbers, and a chorus of unassuming non-omniscient shadow puppets, and you’ve got one strange and spicy stew of a home-cooked movie.


Theatrical release trailer for Sita Sings the Blues

COMMENTS: Sita Sings the Blues is a masterpiece. It’s an incredible (mostly) one-woman achievement: a musical/comedy/educational epic with a trippy Art-Deco-meets-Hindu-iconography-meets-underground-comics style that throws everything it can think of at the screen, yet somehow comes together as a coherent whole. It’s animated in (depending on how you count) at least three major styles (hand-drawn “Squigglevision,” Flash animation, and the cut-out paintings used to tell the epic proper). Sita herself appears in multiple guises: as a blazing blue goddess with glittering navel jewelry, in various two-dimensional paintings that recreate traditional depictions (once overlaid with ridiculous bouquet of lotuses blooming across her cheeks, eyes, and breasts), as a voluptuous jazz age songstress, and as Nina, the goddess’ contemporary avatar on Earth. Stripped down to basics, the story is a simple, universal tale of a loyal woman scorned. The film’s layers of style provide the depth, serving as recurring incarnations of the melancholy vicissitudes of romance.

The Ramayana, retold from Sita’s rather than Rama’s perspective, serves as the backbone of the movie. Three silhouettes (seen later as Indonesian shadow puppets hanging in Nina’s San Francisco apartment) supply unscripted commentary about the story as episodes are animated before our eyes. To create this chorus, Paley had three Indian friends, each of whom had grown up hearing slightly different versions of the tale, discuss the massive epic while she recorded their conversations. The effect can be humorous, as when the three can’t decide whether the king dies of grief after banishing Rama to the forest, so that the cartoon death-crosses on the monarch’s eyes blink on and off as the trio debate the issue. But it also serves to ground us in the actual psyche of myth as we observe the way that people integrate these legends into their lives. Paley illustrates key events—Rama’s banishment, nine-headed Ravana’s abduction of Sita, Sita’s banishment—in a style that resembles a living picture canvas, with two-dimensional avatars sliding across hand-painted backgrounds. These witty illustrations, along with the comments from the three-person shadow chorus, supply us with the Cliff Notes version of the wife’s ordeal, just enough for us to grasp the universality of her plight. It provides a piquant subcontinental flavor without bogging us down in too many culture-specific details.

The Annette Hanshaw musical sequences are where the movie really shines. There’s a reason they inspire the film’s title. Here, we take in the three layers of Paley’s casserole—ancient narrative, jazz age iconography, modern vector animation—all in one bite. The music video/production number style gives Paley the freedom to focus on visuals and unleash her imagination. There are wonderfully bizarre moments. Rama dispatches rakshasas and flying eyeballs with his bow while his adoring wife croons. They then embrace in a shower of demon blood while holy men nod to the rhythm. Sita’s eyelashes flutter in staccato during “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” as bloody limbs fly up in the air during her rescue from captivity. “Mean to Me” features Rama kicking Sita into a pyre for the trial of purity; her unperturbed silhouette grooves in the flames until a three-faced god on a goat rescues her. The final number, “I’ve Got a Feelin’ I’m Falling”, begins with Sita hanging upside down in the belly of a spectral Mother Earth, and ends with a dance number with four-armed Nataraja rolling around in his ring of fire and Brahma on his lotus throne gently rocking to the beat. Hanshaw’s final “that’s all!” echoes from a subterranean grave as Sita is swallowed up by the earth. And the opening credits sequence, a psychedelic vision of the creation of the universe scored to throbbing Indian electronica which depicts Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi creating the universe from her finger, is even wilder.

On a jazz-snob side note, critics almost universally praised Hanshaw’s singing, often calling “great” (and, what’s even worse, often calling it “jazz”). While she was certainly a pleasant and competent torch singer, I don’t think there’s any great mystery why she’s never mentioned in the same breath with Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London or Lena Horne. Hanshaw has a nice tone, range, and the slightest of wavers, plus a cute trademark sign-off (“that’s all!”). But there is no improvisation in her vocals, and the mild swing-inflected  arrangements are very standard, poppy Tin Pan Alley stuff, suitable to accompany a Warner Brothers cartoon. In fact, throughout Sita‘s running time, I kept wondering how the movie might play with an actual blues chanteuse crooning the tunes. Then again, it’s hard to imagine a Bessie Smith taking this kind of crap from a man; she would have taken a slug of gin and put Lord Rama on his ass. At the other end of the spectrum, Rama’s not nearly abusive enough for Billie Holiday to fall for him. Hanshaw’s over-domesticated, white-bread vocals may be the perfect choice for a woman who’s fatal flaw is being too loyal and self-sacrificing, and the frothiness of the arrangements provides the proper ironic sweetness to cover the foul taste of love forsaken.

The weakest portions of the film are the autobiographical segments, animated in a simple underground comics style that recalls Paley’s beginnings as a cartoonist, but this strand of the tapestry still adds value. They poignantly reminds us how personal this tale is to Paley, which is one of Sita‘s major themes: that the world’s great myths capture eternal human feelings that translate across eras and cultures. Paley adds one painful scene of abasement when she pathetically begs her husband to take her back; that can’t have been easy to do, and it helps remind us that in great myths, as in life, no one is all good or all bad. Her husband comes off poorly, as does his mythical counterpart Rama, but by writing the story this way Paley allows herself (and Sita) to get the last laugh. Revenge is a dish best served cool.

Sita is almost universally praised. The film’s only serious  detractors are Hindu traditionalists who think that the movie is blasphemous. It’s ironic that there are some factions within a religion which prides itself on being more inclusive and open than the monotheistic traditions who would stoop to such pettiness, but people are people. Religions are territorial. Sita is irreverent, but in a wholesome way. It’s far from blasphemous, and in fact the film accepts Hinduism at face value. Most of the audience will learn more about the great religion from this movie than they will in school. The inclusion of the chorus of actual Indians, discussing the legends casually, the way real people do, further helps to inoculate the work from charges of cultural bias. It would take the most paranoid of souls to see Sita as an intentional mockery. The film is a tribute to the power of the Ramayana, and an argument for its continuing relevance even outside the borders of the Hindu world. That seems like an enterprise worth praising rather than protesting. Paley’s next big project tackles Judaism; that may hit a bit closer to home for local audiences, but if she keeps the same light touch, Jews have nothing to fear. They have been known to occasionally have a sense of humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At first, you may have no idea what’s going on here. The opening sequences are a paroxysm of colors, visual patterns, and old-time jazz that seems calculated to obliterate a viewer’s orientation… If ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ whirls us around the world visually, the movie’s gracefully interweaving story lines bring it all back home.”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

“Nina Paley’s phantasmagoric toon isn’t an adaptation of the Hindu text per se… Rather, this colorful, cranium-bursting film isn’t about one specific tale so much as the endless ways you can present narratives; it’s nothing less than a kitchen-sink deconstruction on the art of storytelling.”–David Fear, Time Out Chicago (contemporaneous)

“The computer animation style — a retro-looking 2-D, bursting with color and playfully hallucinatory — is something to behold, but so is the brilliant idea of having a musical illustration for each section of ‘Ramayana’ in which a Betty Boop-like Sita lip-syncs to scratchy old recordings by jazz ingenue Annette Hanshaw.”–Stan Hall, The Oregonian (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Sita Sings the Blues – A huge resource curated by the creator, with Paley’s thoughts on copyright law, merchandise and donation links, an electronic press kit with hi-res stills, a FAQ, its own wiki, and of course links to watch or download the movie

IMDB LINK: Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Sita Sings the Blues << NinaPaley.com – Everything tagged with “Sita” at Paley’s busy blog

The Ramayana Index – A complete online translation of the epic poem (warning: the full text is about as long as the Bible)

Hindu Goddess as Betty Boop? It’s PersonalNew York Times article on Sita‘s woes

Animating a Personal Flash Epic: The Making of Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues – Interview with Paley (much of which was later incorporated into her site’s FAQ)

Copyrighting away culture: An interview with Nina Paley – Interview specifically addressing the film’s copyright hassles with the Annette Hanshaw songs

Sing Those Blues, Sita! – Another interview, this time with Coilhouse

Hindu groups protest screening of ‘Sita Sings the Blues’Times of India report on Hindu groups protesting the movie as sacrilegious

GEMA censored my movie in Germany! – Paley’s video protest against a German licensing bureau’s blocking of the movie on German YouTube

DVD INFO: Because of the copyright issues with Hanshaw’s recordings, and Paley’s subsequent decision to release the film to the public domain, Sita‘s status on DVD is complicated. The original, official release, with director’s commentary, a short film, and a Paley interview, was limited to 4,999 pressings (to avoid a clause that would trip additional royalty payments if 5,000 units were sold). These originals now sometimes go for $100. Although she gives the film away for free (see below), Paley also sells “pre-downloaded” DVDs exclusively from questioncopyright.com’s online store.

One of the negative side effects of Paley putting the film in the public domain is that any unscrupulous party can download a copy, burn it onto DVD, and sell it as if it were their own work. “Legitimate” copies of the film will bear a sticker with an “E” on it (which stands for “creator Endorsed”). If you don’t want a profiteer who had nothing to do with the film other than burning it onto a blank disk to get your hard-earned money, then stay away from pressed copies for sale on Amazon or Ebay (unless they are used copies bearing that “E” sticker).

Sita can be (pseudo-legally) downloaded from the Internet Archive or viewed on YouTube. The official Sita site maintains a list of other locations where the film can be downloaded. Paley offers Sita for free openly and the owners of Hanshaw’s rights have (thus far, with one small exception) taken no efforts to prevent its online distribution.

What would be nice is if an angel like Criterion would swoop in and pay the actual licensing fees for Hanshaw’s music, then release a top notch DVD or Blu-ray with plenteous features (naturally, Paley could be paid for her participation in supplying the extras). Given the public domain status of the rest of the film, and its reputation as an underacknowledged classic, this would be a bargain proposition for some boutique video outlet. It remains to be seen whether Paley herself would be up for such a deal, however, given her rather dogmatic anti-copyright crusade of late.

One thought on “237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)”

  1. I found the repetition irritating. So many scenes are coupled with a song recounting what we’ve already seen.

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