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Monday, October 4, 2010


You know how sometimes there comes a project that so overwhelms you with its quality and singular charm that you wish the artistic hand and mind behind it nothing but further success and accolades? That's exactly how I feel with regard to cartoonist Nina Paley and the Herculean effort she put into SITA SINGS THE BLUES, a very personal and compelling take on the great ancient Indian epic RAMAYANA, a work that serves as one of the cornerstones of Hindu literature and culture. I was totally blown away by its cornucopia of seemingly incongruous music, mythic culture and imagery, and the film came from out of nowhere to find itself on the short list of my favorite animated films. (It's a great movie in general, but as animation it's a unique work.) Those of you who read this blog with any kind of regularity know that I'm a very tough audience, so take this review at face value.

Told in a number of contrasting visual styles, the film looks at the RAMAYANA as recounted by a trio of contemporary Indians discussing it amongst themselves, providing the Western newcomer with a greatly abbreviated version that retains all of the important bits of the narrative while infusing the piece with healthy doses of modern irreverence. The meat of the tale relates the disintegration of the relationship between Rama — the ideal of the "perfect" man and seventh avatar of Vishnu, the supreme Hindu god — and his wife, Sita — perhaps the example of the "perfect" Indian woman and spouse, also an avatar of the goddess Laxmi, consort to Vishnu — but unlike most interpretations of its source material, Paley's film has the audacity (and sanity) to call into serious question Rama's treatment of Sita, especially when all she does is be selfless to a fault. You see, due to the political machinations of one of his father's wives, Rama is sent away from his father's kingdom for fourteen years just as he's about to take the reigns of rule from his dad; the scheming wife seeks to elevate one of her sons to the throne by way of cashing in a carte blanche wish promised by Rama's father, so she figures that sending the rightful heir away for fourteen years will amount to a case of "out of sight, out of mind." The dutiful Sita accompanies her hubby into the wilderness and while there she catches the eye of the rakshasa Ravana (a rakshasa is a kind of evil spirit, best known in the West for being a "monster of the week" on KOLCHACK: THE NIGHT STALKER back in 1974), the king of the land of Lanka, who abducts her with the intention of making her his bride.

Ravana puts on the moves, much to Sita's displeasure.

That opens a major can of whupass in the form of a righteous and quite understandably offended Rama, who is aided by the monkey warrior Hanuman and his army of loyal monkey badassess, leading to all-out war between the forces of good an evil.

Rama leads the monkey army into battle against Ravana.

Upon Sita's rescue, Rama promptly rejects his wife, believing her to have submitted to her demonic captor's advances. We, the viewers, know that isn't the case thanks to us having witnessed the details of Sita's captivity and her steadfast belief in her man coming to save her, plus her unwavering loyalty to him, yet despite her declarations of her innocence, Rama nonetheless demands that she undergo a very literal trial by fire via which her "purity" will be proven. If she lives and is unharmed by the flames, innocent. If not...

Rama, Hanuman and Sita.

Sita comes through it all without so much as an inch's worth of sooty sari, so Rama takes her back (which one would damned well hope he would since several of the major gods show up in testament to Sita's complete and utter innocence). But things once more go off the rails when Sita finds herself pregnant with Rama's twin sons, which, for no adequately explained reason, Rama believes the result of Sita's non-existent infidelity (again, her innocence was vouched for by the gods themselves), so he banishes his pregnant wife from his kingdom in order to maintain the respect of the citizenry. More happens after that, but the point is that Sita keeps receiving the doo-doo end of the lollipop, all while clinging to her love and respect for her husband, a state of being that was meant to be an inspiration to all women back in the days (or all Indian women, anyway).

Sita's narrative is interesting enough and obviously ripe for much discussion from a feminist point of view, but the piece is lent an interesting parallel by Nina Paley's injection of her own marital situation into the mix, rendered with a "squigglevision" visual style whose simple mundanity underscores the RAMAYANA's epic grandeur. When Nina's husband accepts a job that takes him away from his wife (and their cat) for a six-month contract job in India, the man undergoes some changes during his time over there, changes that really become apparent when Paley arrives in India to join him and discovers he has grown distant and indifferent to her.

A contemporary parallel narrative: Nina arrives in India to discover her man has gone through some unexpected and unfortunate changes.

Upon returning to the States for a short gig in New York, Paley finds herself dumped by her husband, via email, no less (his reasons are never actually explained, but they are not necessarily germane to the point and they're not the viewer's business anyway), which leads her to find a degree of solace in the ancient words of the RAMAYANA. Thus, as embodied by Paley as a modern avatar (in my interpretation, anyway), Sita's struggle becomes a universal trial shared by a 21st-century sister, a deeply moving example of how the arts so often reflect life and how even a work as seemingly hoary as the RAMAYANA can remain relevant so long after its composition and so utterly removed from the time, place and native culture of its intended audience.

The kind of animated visuals that make me regret giving up recreational hallucinogens. (Gotta love that strutting moon!)

The fascinating stylistic elements found in SITA SINGS THE BLUES are many and never are they exploited solely for their sheer visual gimmickry. Paley's design style is both crisp and lush, lending the RAMAYANA's subjects a visually-pleasing and colorful aspect, which is wholly appropriate when dealing with Indian mythic figures, several of whom have been depicted since Day One as possessing pigments of assorted non-human hues. Everything within the RAMAYANA's mythic landscape is alive with color and interest, so even if that were the only thing the film had going for it, the audience would still have something solid and legitimate to absorb. In fact, I would say this film has the most fully-realized animated world/universe in any film since YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968) and that is a compliment I do not hand out lightly.

The well-versed and often irreverent "Greek chorus" of shadow puppets, seen here discussing Sita and Rama. I found these guys both informative and occasionally funny as hell.

Offering a running commentary on the story's events are a trio of modern day Indians who are represented in ornate silhouette by shadow puppet figures. Serving as the film's "Greek chorus," the trio of two guys and a woman recount the story in a manner suggesting it's something they've experienced since perhaps as far back as childhood, and their conversational manner suggests a level of comfortable, intimate familiarity with the material, an aspect that will certainly make the piece much more accessible to the Western newbie. That comfort and familiarity also affords an unexpected and refreshing level of discourse involving inconsistencies in the venerable narrative that more hidebound and reverent adherents would overlook or accept due to the work's place as a literary landmark, but the film's narrators' approach the material like a bunch of fans discussing a beloved work over drinks during happy hour, having fun with the object of their shared interest and making a number of very valid points about its content when looked at from a modern post-feminist context. Rama's behavior is deservedly called into question — Dude, the gods exonerated your wife...Hell-loooooo!!! — but Sita also gets called on the carpet for her moon-eyed and doting acceptance of her husband's cruelties, a pattern described by one of the male narrators as "her big mistake." Definitely not an attitude that would have been so matter-of-factly expressed in the more patriarchal time and culture from which the RAMAYANA sprang.

Jazz Age vocalist Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985): the voice of SITA SINGS THE BLUES.

Accenting all of this, and to great effect, is the music of vocalist Annette Hanshaw, a singer whose understated-but-heartfelt tones lend appropriate voice to Sita's point of view. Displaying that haunting and haunted sound that only pre-1940's jazz and blues recordings have, Hanshaw's songs are so dead-on in synch with what's going on in the story, you'd swear they were recent recordings crafted especially for Paley's film, only slightly aurally tweaked to simulate the aforementioned period sound. Jazz and blues are not exactly my thing, but I do love the very old school stuff, so the tunes found in the film's soundtrack were right up my alley, so much so that I bought the album immediately after seeing the film for the first time.

Speaking of which, I first sat through SITA SINGS THE BLUES a week ago, and as of me sitting here writing this piece — it's nearing 1AM on this Monday morning — I just sat through it for the fourth time about three hours ago. I intended to write about it last Monday or Tuesday, but I didn't have the time to sit down and give it the attention it deserves. I have now rectified that situation and I strongly urge you to buy your own copy of the DVD. A decent cut of the sales goes to Paley, who busted her ass making this film almost totally by herself, a feat that is nothing short of mind-blowing when one considers that there are many animated features from the past decade or so that cost many times more and had dozens of animators on staff and yet aren't one tenth as good as this.

Here endeth the review/love letter.

1 comment:

  1. Very good review.

    You might enjoy my interview(s) with Paley about the Agni Pariksha segment of the film. You can find them, and various essays on Sita, listed here.