We continue our series of reviews chronicling all of the (non-Studio Ghibli) animated films distributed by GKIDS Films — some of the most original and breathtakingly beautiful animated films from around the world — and how they hold up for a young American audience.
We’re traveling chronologically (the entire retrospective is found here), and this time we’ve got…
Sita Sings the Blues (2008): Nina Paley
What’s it about?
Sita Sings the Blues is a creative retelling of the Hindu epic the Ramayana. The story focuses on the relationship between Rama and Sita and presents the story very much from Sita’s perspective. Through her thoughts, the songs she sings, and a contemporary analog, we’re presented with a sympathetic and compassionate view of the character.
There are four parallel storylines going on at the same time: there’s (1) three modern Indian shadow puppets conversationally telling the story of the Ramayana; (2) reenactments of various scenes from the epic, presented in a traditional artistic style; (3) musical interludes with Sita singing 1920s jazz tunes by Annette Hanshaw, presented in a more “cartoony” style; and (4) a contemporary story that follows an American couple’s relationship roller coaster. All four storylines have a distinct artistic style.
I’ll let writer/artist/director Nina Paley explain her purpose: “The aspect of the story that I focus on is the relationship between Sita and Rama, who are gods incarnated as human beings, and even they can’t make their marriage work. And then there’s my story. I’m just an ordinary human who also can’t make her marriage work. And the way that it fails is uncannily similar to the way Rama and Sita’s relationship fails. Inexplicable yet so familiar. And the question that I asked and the question people still ask is, “Why”? Why did Rama reject Sita? Why did my husband reject me? We don’t know why, and we didn’t know 3,000 years ago. I like that there’s really no way to answer the question, that you have to accept that this is something that happens to a lot of humans.”
What are the cultures at play? And how about the languages?
The Ramayana is an Indian epic, and the film obviously is steeped in Indian culture. Nina Paley, however, is not of Indian descent, so the film bears the thumbprint of an outsider looking in. The segments with the three shadow puppets discussing the characters and events feel like they were designed to guide the audience through the epic. These three, with their familiar and sometimes irreverent take on the story, are our tour guides through the Ramayana and Sita’s story.
Remarkably, these segments were 100% unscripted. They’re the honest result of a conversation among three real people, from three different parts of India, who grew up with three different versions of the story. Their exchanges drive home the idea that there’s no “one, true” Ramayana. It has different meanings to different people.
Annette Hanshaw’s music, although born out of the 1920s U.S. jazz scene, feels very much at home with Sita. The songs and lyrics Paley chose to include (they in fact directly inspired the film itself) mirror Sita’s experiences remarkably well. The first musical interlude might throw you for a loop, but by the end of the film, it all feels incredibly natural.
Will my kids like it?
Older kids (10+) with an interest in culture, language, literature, and/or music will enjoy the film. There’s a surprising amount of action and humor packed in, but it takes a bit of attention and concentration to appreciate it. With that in mind, the film isn’t really recommended for younger kids, who might find themselves bored or confused.
Will I like it?
I’ll admit: the animation style and non-traditional narrative might not be to everyone’s taste. I’ve also read some criticism from Hindus who felt offended by the film.
Don’t get the impression that Sita Sings the Blues is a faithful adaptation of the Ramayana or an unchallenged portrayal of Sita. This isn’t a Cliff’s Notes version of the epic. It’s one person’s interpretation of certain events and characters and how that story has parallels to her own life and experience.
If you go into it with that in mind — that it’s one person’s vision, one person’s interpretation of the story — then there’s a heckuva lot to love here. The animation is phenomenal, the music is divine, and the story is challenging.
The word ass is used a few times, and Sita’s breasts are rather pronounced (in both of her incarnations). They’re never bare, but they’re kind of in-your-face and may raise some giggles or questions from young kids.
There are also some scenes of blood and violence during battles between human/monkey hybrids and purple demons. None of that is presented realistically, so the battles kids might see on something like Transformers are more graphic.
How can I see it?
Sita Sings the Blues is freely available from various sources. And when I say “freely available,” I literally mean “for free.” Director Nina Paley ran up against a whole host of legal and copyright issues with the film (due to the Annette Hanshaw songs), so she did the unthinkable (at the time). She made it free for everyone.
“I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.”
The film makes it into our GKIDS retrospective on a technicality, since GKIDS is the distributor of 35mm prints for those who want to show the film on the big screen. For those who just want to watch it, Nina Paley actually prefer you download the film via BitTorrent, direct download, or watch via a number of streaming sites. If you’re just dying to pay for it, it’s available on DVD here.
I’ve also embedded it right here for your immediate pleasure:
The film is remarkable for its existence alone. Nina Paley is a self-taught animator who created the film primarily in Flash. (She also produced some original watercolors, which she animated with After Effects.) Amazingly, Paley alone is responsible for nearly every aspect of the film. She singlehandedly wrote, produced, directed, and animated the entire film. She also voiced the character of Nina.
Sita Sings the Blues is a crowning achievement of animation over the last decade, and it’s a film that really deserves to be seen by as large an audience as possible. If you’ve not seen it already, there’s really no excuse for you not to rectify that immediately. It couldn’t be easier to watch.