Personal pick: Sita Sings the Blues

“Oh my gods!”: Lord Rama can’t believe his eyes in this shot from Sita Sings the Blues, written, directed and animated by Nina Paley of the USA

Over 60 films are set to be screened at the trinidad+tobago film festival/09. While we believe they are all good films, there are a handful that we, individually and for different reasons, have a particular fondness for and think are worthy or remark. Here is my take on Sita Sings the Blues; the first in a series of posts on personal picks, favourite films from some of us at the Festival. Please remember that our opinions on these films are just that–only our opinions (but we’d like to think that they count for something anyway).

“It’s just a cartoon,” someone said to me the other day, of Sita Sings the Blues. His remark served as reminder of the view that many people still have concerning animated films: as good as some of them might be, they’re just not in the same league as live-action films.

I beg to differ. A good film is a good film, regardless of style or genre or mode of filmmaking. A good animated film is better than a bad live-action one. (The best Hollywood film I’ve seen this year is Up, a truly breathtaking cinematic experience.)

Sita Sings the Blues, the first feature-length animated film to be shown at the TTFF, is also a great cinematic experience. It seamlessly weaves together multiple storylines, each told using a distinctly different style of animation, and also brilliantly incorporates music and narration. The film is partly based on the ancient Hindu mythological epic poem, the Ramayana (pronounced “ramine”), attributed to the poet Valmiki. In Trinidad, the Ramayana is dramatised every year in the run-up to Divali celebrations as the Ramleela, and tells the story of how Lord Rama of Ayodhya was banished from his kingdom, along with his wife Sita, to live in the forest for fourteen years. While there, Sita is kidnapped by the evil King Ravana, who takes her back to his island fortress of Lanka. With the help of Hanuman, the monkey god, Rama goes to Lanka, kills Ravan, and takes Sita back.

This is where the Ramleela ends–Sita and Rama are reunited, and a massive effigy of Ravana is burned. That’s not where the Ramayana ends, however. Having rescued Sita, Rama now refuses to have anything to do with her. As she has lived in another man’s house, Rama has doubts over Sita’s honour, and she is made to undergo a trial by fire to prove her purity. Even after this Rama remains unconvinced, and when Sita tells him she is pregnant, he has her banished to the forest.

Using a beautiful painterly style of animation, Sita Sings the Blues dramatises all these events with a humorous, lightly irreverent touch. Adding further comedy and a critical undertone to the story are three boisterous and unreliable shadow puppets as narrators. Like a malformed Greek chorus, they pop up now and again to comment and give their often ill-informed opinion on what is going on. Thus Sita gently makes the point that religious texts and stories are not meant to be swallowed unthinkingly or taken literally, but should be wrestled with, studied, questioned. In doing so the film subverts the epic somewhat; while Rama is the glorious hero of the Ramayana, it is Sita who takes precedence in this feminised, even feminist retelling.

Then there are the songs. Interspersed throughout the film are musical numbers, torch songs from the 1920s by the late jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. As “sung” by the Sita character, Hanshaw’s songs take on a wonderful new life, and help to dramatise Sita’s plight further.

Finally, giving the film even more depth and resonance is another, contemporary storyline, involving an American woman named Nina (yes, the film’s director is an American woman named Nina–the story is unabashedly autobiographical, and Nina Paley even provides the voice for the character of Nina). Nina lives with her husband in San Francisco. When he is offered a job in India, she is left behind, but then goes out to join him after a few months. She finds him cold, distant. Then when Nina goes to New York on a business trip, she gets an email from the husband–he’s breaking up with her. Their relationship is over.

The echoes and parallels between Nina’s and Sita’s stories become increasingly evident as the film goes on, and we begin to realise that the film is not just a funny version of an old religious story with a few songs thrown in, but a moving exploration of love and loss, of picking up the pieces and moving on after one’s heart has been broken. These are universal, eternal themes, and there will never be an end to the stories that dramatise them. If only they could all be as touching, as funny, as amazing as this film.

Date: Thu 03 Sep, 2009
Category: ttff news and features

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