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Sita Has Many Names

November 22nd, 2010 · 3 Comments

Logging in to Netflix Instant for a movie to watch is like being hungry and shown to a food replicator. It doesn’t solve my problem — it introduces one thousand new ones. Luckily, I can see which genres are rated higher in nutritional content, in this case, 4 or 4 ½ star ratings out of 5 stars. “Documentary” had a lot of those. So did “Anime & Animation”. In the month of November, I take another trip around the globe to sample recent animated feature films. Next stop: Manhattan, New York, USA.

Sita Sings the Blues (2009)
Directed by Nina Paley
Written by Nina Paley
Produced by Nina Paley
82 minutes

Like a strange brew coated with aromatic honey, Sita Sings the Blues goes down easy for anyone wary of the letters “DIY” stamped on a movie. Cartoonist and filmmaker Nina Paley was introduced to the Hindu epic The Ramayana in comic book format while living in Trivandum with her then-husband. After their long distance breakup, Paley found solace in the records of jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, whose blues Paley felt echoed the myth of Rama’s long suffering wife, Sita. Over the course of five years, Paley animated and produced Sita Sings the Blues on a Mac in her Manhattan apartment, working primarily in Flash and editing in Final Cut Pro. Lending their expertise were sound designer Greg Sextro, three friends from India who ad-libbed narration and the French band Masala Dosa, who found Paley on the Internet and contributed a song. Her production budget was practically zero.

While Annette Hanshaw’s recordings were public domain, Paley discovered that the publishing rights to the songs she needed would cost her $220,000. She managed to get legal clearances for $70,000 by making sure Sita Sings the Blues wouldn’t reap millions at the box office, giving her movie away for free under a Creative Commons license known as a “copyleft”. Screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2008, Sita Sings the Blues played to wide acclaim at every other film festival on the planet before being issued on DVD in July 2009. While the mission statement and means in which Paley produced her film are more fascinating than anything that really ended up on screen, Sita Sings the Blues is lifted by its abundant wit, enterprising mixture of ancient myth with jazz and its equation of modern day struggles with the centuries old mysteries scribbled down in The Ramayana.

In San Francisco, Nina (Nina Paley) and Dave (Sanjiv Jhaveri) have their relationship thrown into upheaval when Dave receives a job offer taking him to India. Three shadow puppets (Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya) begin a story from the Hindu holy book The Ramayana, in which Rama (Debargo Sanyal), the virtuous Prince of Ayodhya, is sent into exile on the eve of his coronation. Rama pledges to rid the forests of the raksha demons terrorizing their holy men. In spite of the dangers, his loving wife Sita (Reena Shah), who cannot live without her husband, accompanies Rama on his crusade. Sita expresses her devotion and self-sacrifice through the 1920s jazz recordings of Annette Hanshaw. Back in San Francisco, Dave departs on his journey to India, leaving Nina unsure when she will see him again.

Ravana, king of the island Lanka, seeks revenge against Rama by ordering his minion Maricha to transform into a golden deer, distracting Rama on a hunt long enough for the treacherous monarch to abduct Sita. Refusing to force himself on his captive, Ravana lets Sita decide whether she wants to become his. She remains loyal to her husband, but once rescued, Rama questions his wife’s purity. These doubts spread throughout the kingdom and Rama decides to send Sita into exile, even though she is pregnant with his twin sons. Once in India, Dave develops similar doubts about Nina. He remains distant when she arrives for a visit and when Nina travels to New York for a job, Dave breaks up with her via email. Nina finds solace in Sita, whose long and lonely exile ends when she offers to prove her purity to Rama.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 574 users: 87% for Sita Sings the Blues

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 94 for Sita Sings the Blues

What do you say?

Tags: Alternate universe · Animation · Based on book · Beasts and monsters · Father/son relationship

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alex // Nov 28, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I loved this film- it’s such an interesting blend of animation styles, musical theater, Hindu myth, and autobiography. I’m so glad that despite Paley’s licensing troubles she was still able to share her work.

    PS I’m really digging your multi-national animation tour! Excellent film selections!

  • 2 Nayana Anthony // Dec 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Ooooh! This looks fabulous! I am so watching this on Saturday.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Dec 3, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Alex: I haven’t seen it reported widely, but Paley’s odyssey to getting this film made and then giving it all away is more inspiring and a bigger “game changer” than Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee or Kevin Smith’s debut films rolled into one. She makes me feel like a slacker, that’s for sure. Thanks so much for commenting, Alex! I’m glad you enjoyed the series.

    Nayana: If you haven’t paid money already, Sita Sings the Blues is available for free on Nina Paley’s website or on YouTube. It’s pretty much the best dollar-to-value ratio you can get for a good movie without stealing. I hope you dig it. Thanks for commenting!

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