Betty Boop meets Bollywood in the greatest breakup story ever told, set to the musical stylings of a 1920’s torch singer you probably never heard of, and singlehandedly computer-animated in a variety of styles by cartoonist Nina Paley. Funny, beautiful, tragic, and mesmerizing, it’s called Sita Sings the Blues, and it’s brilliant.
Sita Sings the Blues is really three stories in one, told in words, animation, and song, woven on the loom of the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Here’s the gist of it:
Somewhere in the swirling mists of ancient India, court intrigue deprives noble, brave, and muscular Prince Rama of his kingdom. He’s banished to a demon-infested forest. His loving, virtuous, and beautiful wife Sita follows him into exile, despite the danger, and is soon kidnapped and spirited away by Ravana, a powerful demon lord. Rama joins forces with monkey king Hanuman to defeat Ravana’s army of fiends and rescue Sita. Happily ever after, right?
Rama suspects Sita of indulging in hanky-panky with Ravana during her captivity and sends her away. Sita proves her innocence and devotion to Rama via a literal trial by fire, and the lovers are reunited for a short time. Rama even regains his lost kingdom, but gossip about Sita among his subjects causes him to thrust Sita away once again, this time to protect his royal dignity and reputation. Sita is heartbroken, but she never forsakes her love for Rama. In a final, desperate act, she proves her fidelity beyond all doubt, and Rama is left alone to ponder the consequences of his pride and stubborn suspicion.
Interlaced with the tale of Rama and Sita is Nina Paley’s recounting of her own lost love, which begins when her husband takes a short-term job in India that becomes a long-term position. When she joins him there, she finds him changed—detached and distant. He finally abandons her. In the midst of her mourning and outrage, she discovers the Ramayana, and finds within it the essence of her personal tragedy.
As the story unfolds, a trio of shadow puppets, voiced by some of Ms. Paley’s Indian friends, explain the events of the Ramayana and cheerfully bicker about the various details and their meaning. The Ramayana, like the fairy tales I learned growing up, is based heavily on oral tradition, and after centuries of multiple retellings, everyone learns it a little differently. In the banter among this chorus of observers, we hear a third story—how the Ramayana came to be, how it has evolved in subtle ways across the generations, and how people take stories and apply them to explain events in their own lives or take solace in the knowledge that their sufferings are shared by all mankind—even heroic figures of legend.
Each thread is animated in a distinctive style. Moving collages of iconic Hindu art illustrate the retelling of the Ramayana. Sita’s musical numbers feature whimsical Flash animations. The autobiographical segments are drawn in a spare, cartoony style that conveys a lot of emotion with an economy of lines. All are witty and amusing in their own way.
Tying everything together are songs by Annette Hanshaw, whose sassy take on the longsuffering woman who stays true to the man who “done her wrong” provides a perfect background theme for this tale of heartbreak. Making the unlikely connection between jazz songs of the 1920s and a timeless legend from India is simultaneously a stroke of genius and utterly charming.
Ms. Paley fought a long, nasty, expensive battle with the copyright bureaucracy for the use of Hanshaw’s songs, which has turned her into something of a crusader against copyright law, DRM, etc. You can read about it in more detail here (along with other background information about the creation of Sita Sings the Blues). In brief, the rights have been pieced and partzed and resold so many times, nobody’s entirely certain what they are. To help avoid any remaining legal pitfalls, Ms. Paley has waived all copyright to her movie as a complete work and it is free to view via online streaming or download, though the artist gratefully accepts donations to assist with the costs incurred to make Sita freely available worldwide.
I thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable watch, but I doubt Sita Sings the Blues will be everybody’s cup of Darjeeling. I’d rate it a PG, though pre-teens will likely find it confusing in places, and the Hindu elements will require some explaining.
Website for Sita Sings the Blues (where you can watch or download the movie)
Many thanks to Donita K. Paul, a fine author whose cozy, magical, dragon-inhabited stories I have greatly enjoyed, for introducing me to Sita Sings the Blues.