>> Sita Sings the Blues (2009)

Title: Sita Sings the Blues

Genre: Animation

Starring: Annette Hanshaw, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Debargo Sanyal, Reena Shah, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya

Director: Nina Paley

Studio: FilmKaravan

Runtime: 82 minutes

Release Date: July 28, 2009

Format: DVD

Discs: 1

MPAA Rating: NR

Rating: 4.20 (out of 4.00)

Grade: A+

Official Site

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is the most improbable of movies.  Meshing a modern story of heartbreak with an abridged version of the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana, the film uses contrasting 2D animation styles and tells most of its tale through the lyrics of Annette Hanshaw’s 1920s bluesy songs and the ad-lib narration of three shadow puppets.  By all rights, Sita should be a complete mess, but instead, it’s a masterpiece.  Gorgeous, wonderfully original, and witty without being too irreverent, Sita is a joy to watch.

Paley was working as a cartoonist in San Francisco when her husband took a job in India.  Eventually following him there, she found him distant and when she travelled to New York for meetings relating to a new comic strip, she received a “Dear Nina” e-mail from her now ex-husband.  Unable to return to the San Francisco apartment (and cat) she had sublet and clearly unable to return to India, Paley settled in New York, where she listened to Annette Hanshaw recordings and read various versions of the Ramayana.  Ingeniously making a connection between her own jilted state, torch songs of the 1920s, and her view of the epic tale of Rama the dutiful son and king, Paley created this blissfully entertaining film.  Focusing mostly on the portion of the Ramayana where Rama’s beloved wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, King of Lanka, and rescued by Rama only to have him doubt her purity and eventually abandon her, Paley is able to give a feminist voice to the ancient tale while showing the universal pain of break-ups with humor and grace.

I’m woefully ignorant about animation, but I love the different styles Paley uses in Sita.  For the Ramayana scenes, Paley evokes Indian drawings for the more straightforward scenes, but when Annette Hanshaw’s music takes center stage, she uses a much broader, more colorful and almost caricature-like style that breathes life into the beautiful songs.  In the contemporary plot there are much simpler line drawings (think the Cathy comic) that suit the less elaborate story being told.  Taken as a whole, you see a stunning storybook and each viewing will let you discover some new aspect.  It is the little touches that elevate Sita from a good movie to a great one.  The intermission, for example, is a comical tribute to Bollywood and Monty Python.  Does the film need it?  No, but it’s better with it.

The narration is brilliant.  On screen you see three shadow puppets superimposed over the action as they share what they know of the Ramayana.  This telling, since it is ad-libbed by the actors, comes across as a natural conversation with contradictions, faulty memories, disagreement over certain points, and animated discussion of motive and perspective.  Many of the comments are hilarious, some are fascinating (NASA apparently has pictures of Rama’s bridge to Lanka), and the differing viewpoints add depth and poignancy when the narrators debate whether Sita was foolish to love Rama after he discarded her or whether that is simply the definition of unconditional love.  They, along with Hanshaw’s songs, weave the ancient and contemporary stories told here into a gloriously rich tapestry of heartache and humor.

The vivid colors shine on the DVD and everything is bright and beautiful.  I’m impressed at how great Hanshaw’s songs sound and how little static there is.  Excellent remastering job.  For extras, there is a fun early short of Paley’s called Fetch, some commentary by Paley, an interview, and a theatrical trailer.  Both the commentary and the interview deal mostly with copyright issues and not the film itself, so they may be of limited interest.

Sita Sings the Blues was very successful on the festival circuit, but due to the copyright issues discussed on the DVD couldn’t land a distributer.  While the licenses to Hanshaw’s performances have lapsed, the songs themselves are still under copyright due to 1980s legislation that extended all copyrights of the Steamboat Willie era and wide distribution of Sita would have cost around $200,000 in fees (there is a much larger fee when music is accompanied by images than when one artist covers another artist’s work).  After quite a journey, Paley worked out a deal that allows her to sell the DVD.  The film will also be shown in theaters on a very limited basis.  If you have the chance to see it in a theater, run.  Certainly buy the DVD or watch it online.  You won’t be disappointed.  This tale of love’s unhappy journey is a delightful trip

Nina Paley's Blog


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