Sita Sings the Blues
Contrary to what many would believe, I do have a sense of taste in movies. In spite of my unconditional love for bad movies, I have a sense of perspective that lets me see movies with a critical eye. I apply that sense of perspective whenever I go out with friends to see a movie. “Remember, no one is going to voluntarily see Shark Night with you unless they love you or bad films. And no one here loves you enough to see that movie and most of them are unacquainted with Ed Wood, so you’re going to have to think harder.” I have taste in good movies, especially horror; I’ve already reviewed A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing. However, sometimes I need encouragement to see a good movie. Although I thought The Artist looked like it would be a cool movie, I wouldn’t have seen that wonderful film if it wasn’t for a friend who wanted to go. My father and brother often pick good movies that I end up loving even when I’m voting for something ridiculous like Sharktopus. My brother has been telling me to watch Sita Sings the Blues with him for at least six months. I kept putting it off because I didn’t want to huddle before a laptop to watch it; the film is available free on the director/writer/animator/voice actor Nina Paley’s website and on Youtube. However, I finally relented and to my joy I was able to watch it on a television with the help of our Blu Ray player, which can stream movies on Netflix and Youtube. Why did I wait so long? Sita Sings the Blues is awesome!
Sita Sings the Blues is an animated retelling of The Ramayana paralleling the life of the film’s creator, Nina Paley. I will not be offering a synopsis as I typically do because the film is too good to reveal and I fear I won’t do The Ramayana justice with a synopsis. What makes this film so incredible is that it tells the story in alternating segments; each segment is defined by one of four distinct styles of narrative and animation. The first type of segment details Nina Paley’s life and have a rough, squiggly style, something akin to Dr. Katz or Ed, Edd, n Eddy where the outlines of moving objects wobble, and the setting is composed of drawings and photographs; the only speaking characters are Nina and her boyfriend Dave. The second style of segment involves three shadow puppets that discuss the story of the Ramayana and provide commentary on the characters. The puppets hover over a background of maps of India and paintings of the various characters in the story. The conversation between the puppets is conversational, probably improvised, and analyzes the story from a modern perspective. The third type of segment uses classical paintings of the various characters, which are mostly static except for moving the mouths and occasional hopping or walking across the scene. Unlike the puppets, the characters are actually in the story and acting it out, but their dialogue is often humorous, bringing a level of self-awareness and modernity to the story. The final style of segment utilizes very fluid Flash animation with the main character Sita singing, synced to the music of Annette Hanshaw. The action in these musical scenes matches the lyrics of the song and illustrates scenes from the story. It sounds disjointed, but the alternating segments create a unique, cohesive rhythm that draws the viewer in. Nina Paley is masterful in weaving the segments together and bold for even trying to tell the story in such a radical manner; there are novels that work by telling the story from several characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters and by using different styles or voices, but I’ve never seen that kind of experience brought to film.
I could continue to gush about the beauty of the animation, but instead I’d like to tackle the controversy surrounding this film. Conservative Hindus and liberal academics alike have claimed Sita Sings the Blues is an offensive adaptation of The Ramayana, if only because it’s an adaptation of an Indian epic and religious text made by a white American woman. Because I’m not a Hindu, my word that it’s not offensive may not be sufficient. However, the film never seemed offensive to me, even in its lighthearted moments; it never makes fun of Hindu culture or the story that’s portrayed. The issue I think many of it detractors take is that Sita Sings the Blues portrays Sita as the story’s protagonist and Rama as antagonist, if only because he was misguided; he’s not all bad, but he’s not all good either. It’s a new interpretation of the story and it’s easy to see how some might perceive that as a threat.
The controversy surrounding this film certainly isn’t new. It brings to mind the complaints about white rappers in the 90s or the controversy surrounding depictions of Muhammad that became so virulent following his depiction in a Danish newspaper. In the case of white rappers, the issue was that white rappers seemed to be co-opting black culture without actually understanding it; Vanilla Ice seemed to be more of a money-making gimmick than a man who legitimately understood and appreciated hip hop. The controversy surrounding Muhammad comes from the sayings of Muhammad and exegetical texts forbidding the production of graven images of religious figures; furthermore, some of those images of Muhammad depicted him as violent, insinuating that Islam at large was violent as well. In both instances, there were legitimate reasons to be upset, but I also think negative critical reaction doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t try to engage other cultures. I think we’ve moved past Vanilla Ice to white rappers that actually can engage hip hop culture in an intelligent, non-exploitative manner; Aesop Rock would be a good example. In a similar manner, I think artists can depict Muhammad without being overtly offensive; yes, there will always be people angry at you for showing Muhammad’s face in spite of Islamic prescriptions, but if you have something important to convey and you show Islam due respect, there’s no reason to abide by religious laws that don’t apply to you. That being said, a picture of Muhammad wearing a turban with a bomb in it is not constructive commentary on militancy in Islam; it’s just a cartoonist being a jerk.
I share concerns about awkward co-optation of other cultures and disrespecting other cultures out of ignorance, but I don’t think artists should avoid engaging other cultures. Sita Sings the Blues is lighthearted at times and interprets The Ramayana in a new manner, but I’m convinced Nina Paley has the utmost respect for Indian culture and Hinduism. It’s hard to imagine that a woman could disrespect a story she connected so intimately with and spent years trying to retell as a free, animated film. It’s hard to imagine that a woman who has urged others to read The Ramayana has any disrespect for her source material. If anything Nina Paley deserves praise for bringing The Ramayana to a new, international audience. The Ramayana has definitely been added to my gargantuan reading list.