Sita's House of Blues

GODDESS LAKSHMI appears bejewelled, curvy and sloe-eyed out of a watercolour sea on a pink lotus. A peacock gramophone appears next to her and she begins dancing to the sound of 1920s blues singer Annette Hanshaw’s Moaning Low. Nineteen seconds later, the record gets stuck at the phrase ‘a woman like me, a woman like me.’ She cocks her ear to the record and the scene explodes into the opening sequence of artist Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues.

In 2002, Paley (now a Guggenheim fellow) followed her then-husband from the US to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, where she read her first Ramayana. When she was back in New York for a week, her husband wrote to her, asking her not to come back. This part of her life and grief runs as a parallel track in the film. The main narrative examines, with a sceptic’s eye, Rama’s behavior towards Sita. Paley wrote, animated and produced the film singlehandedly over five years on a home computer. The results are extremely charming.

The autobiographical strand of the film follows a rather uninterestingly told narrative of self-actualisation, of the wronged woman who finds herself in work and art. But Paley doesn’t attempt such an interpretation of the Ramayana. Instead, like the many Sitayanas sung and narrated by women across India, the film tells the story of a lovelorn and devoted Sita and criticises Rama’s actions, sometimes upfront and sometimes with sly wit. Paley’s Sitayana, full of surprise and variation, is populated by one-eyed flying demons, a double-bass playing Hanuman and a Fred Astaire- like tap dancing moon. Mocking the limitations of 2- D animation, her characters spring perfectly to Hanshaw’s songs. Now that Paley has made the widely-admired 2008 release freely available online under a Creative Commons License, groups in India are beginning to organise public screenings. Understandably, they are nervous.

It doesn’t matter that Paley’s version is told with palpable love, and a desire to remind people that some kinds of pain are universal, transcending time and culture. Organisations like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (whose identity can be measured by how easily they’re offended) have objected to its existence. On their website, fascinatingly named Denigrations, the Samiti urges people offended by the film to file police complaints. An open letter tells Paley that she doesn’t have the spiritual maturity or authority to ‘twist’ a story. Also tacked on is the now popular, and confusing, threat that offended Hindus will follow the path of violence that fundamentalist Muslims did after the Danish cartoon controversy.

Part of this film’s charm lies in the fact that Paley isn’t smug, or doesn’t pretend to be sure of the ‘purity’ of an epic. Sita is occasionally Betty Boop-like with circular fringed eyes, sometimes like a Rajput miniature and sometimes like calendar art. The most commonly known interpretation of the Ramayana, the one many of us are taught as children as the authoritative story, plays out over 82 minutes. Meanwhile, three shadow puppets with urbane desi voices argue mildly about the sequence of events and the motivations of each character. Was Ravana a good guy? Was Sita wrong to refuse to be rescued by Hanuman? What was Rama thinking? Was Sita wrong to love a man who didn’t trust her? No, Sita loved Ram unconditionally. Heavy ground is covered swiftly and lightly, leaving you with the blues and sweetness.

Reading our cultural guardians’ spewing of bile leaves with you with far less elevating thoughts.

From Tehelka Magazine,


C.I., every post of yours is worth reading twice over.

Loved the review.

April 13, 2009 at 9:50 AM  

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