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Friday Film Review: Sita Sings the Blues

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
Genre: Animation
Grade: A

When I put this in my Netflix queue, I had no idea how truly revolutionary it would be. Even as I started to watch it, I didn’t know what was coming but found myself charmed, delighted and emotionally connected to the story and the storyteller. For, you see, both become entwined as Nina Paley tells of her marriage and its failure along with an abbreviated version of the Ramayana. WTF? you say. Yes TF I say, it’s true. And we also get a healthy dose of a wonderful jazz age singer named Annette Hanshaw whose songs are just perfect to help tell the tale.

Paley uses 5 distinct styles of animation plus some amazing music – including modern Indian as well as jazz singer Hanshaw – as she winds her story together with that of Rama and his wife Sita. All the animation is fantastic and clever but my favorite are the parts narrated by Indonesian shadow puppets. The voices behind the puppets are three Indians from various parts of the country who provide the basic details of the story – though they sometimes disagree on and mess up the details of the complicated tale which leads to some comic moments as they correct each other and worry about how it will make people mad.

And then there’s the Intermission! Yes, the film has an intermission and don’t skip through it as it’s hilarious watching the various characters head to the concession stands for popcorn, hot dogs and drinks. You can even use it as an intermission was intended if you need to.

The DVD I bought, as well as the website, has various subtitles available – including LOL – and I suggest that, at least the first time through, people watch the film with them on since the accents can be hard to understand at times if you’re not used to them. There’s also a commentary track that’s interesting to listen to. For further details on the movie, there’s a FAQ section at Paley’s website for the film www.sitasingstheblues.com. There’s also a blog and a wiki.

Apparently when the film was first released, there were problems with how it was viewed as a religious story as well as copyright issues with the Hanshaw songs. The songs stuff has been worked out but some viewers might still object to the way Paley chooses to portray the various people of the story. The various versions of the Ramayana are thousands of years old and though Paley doesn’t tell the whole story, what she does tell is definitely from a feminist slant yet some stuff modern feminists might find hard to swallow. But it is what it is and she felt that animating it was a cathartic experience for her after the break up of her marriage.

So, you want to try it? Well, you can rent it, you can buy a copy and it’s available on the internet. Yep, that’s right. Paley has made it freely available to do anything with except copyright it. I know that you can watch it at the Sitasingstheblues.com site as well as youtube and the IMDB. Once I’d seen it, I had to own a copy and gladly paid for it from the website. It’s amazing. It’s funny. It’s inventive. It’s unique and I hope that people check it out and enjoy it as much as I do each time I watch it.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

10 Comments

  1. Aoife
    Mar 12, 2010 @ 08:31:13

    Jayne, thank you for reviewing this enchanting film. I went and watched the first 10 minutes, and on the basis of that I’m going to order the DVD so I can watch it full size on our TV. I don’t want miss any of the gorgeous details.

  2. Jayne
    Mar 12, 2010 @ 08:55:38

    The details are amazing and I keep noticing new ones every time I watch the film. I also love the huge number of languages the film has been subtitled in – usually by foreign fans of the film, which tells me how beloved the film is becoming worldwide.

  3. Book Boor
    Mar 12, 2010 @ 11:53:23

    I saw this last year when a local museum held a film festival and invited Paley to be a guest lecturer. Unfortunately, I could not attend the lecture. However, I really enjoyed the dual storylines and animation. Paley manages to straddle the past and present with ease. My favorite part was the hilarious narration and Hanshaw’s music.

    I admit I thought of Sita’s animated avatar as an Indian Betty Boop.
    This is a charming little film that will bring a smile to your face.

    Jayne, thanks for the review and the reminder.

  4. Jayne
    Mar 12, 2010 @ 17:09:31

    @Book Boor: Paley says she got a lot of flack for the “Indian Betty Boop” avatar of Sita but I have to admit that I love it too. But I guess it’s like portraying the Madonna as a hip swiveling ingenue – it ain’t gonna go over well with some people.

  5. Estara
    Mar 14, 2010 @ 15:17:27

    Yay for another discoverer of SSTB! I had to order the DVD, too, and the cute little cloisonne peacock gramophon pin. Well worth the purchase and an amazing achievement, considering she’s the single animator as far as I remember.

  6. Jayne
    Mar 15, 2010 @ 02:42:35

    She had one intern/student type help her with a little bit of the animation – she mentions it in the commentary track on the DVD. And I totally love that peacock gramophone!

  7. Verona St. James
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 02:02:32

    I’ve been meaning to watch this since I saw the review here and I FINALLY had time.

    Oh. My. Gosh. So good! I loved the animation, and the music was great. It was so clever and cute. And funny!

    I can definitely see how Hindus could be offended, though.

    And I found it interesting that the narrators never mentioned the fact that at that time a “pure” woman wouldn’t let anyone but her husband touch her- which is why she can’t go with Hanuman. She can’t let him touch her. In the oldest version (the Valmiki) she gets a free pass on getting snatched by Ravana because she doesn’t LET him. Various versions come up with loopholes for that, though, like Ravana lifts up all the surrounding land, or Agni shows up and replaces the real Sita with a Sita made of air, etc. Anyway, it’s a really interesting mythology.

    (One of my favorite details from the movie was that Agni, the God of Fire, bought red hots at intermission. Priceless.)

  8. Jayne
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 13:00:48

    @Verona St. James: Yeah! So glad you enjoyed it.

    I’ll have to watch for Agni during the Intermission. I love that the film is full of little things like that.

  9. Sunita
    May 22, 2011 @ 23:26:20

    Jayne, I’m watching Sita Sings the Blues right now on the Link Channel (it shows a couple more times during the week). It is so brilliant! I’ve read a lot of versions of the Ramayana (and seen much of the long serial that was broadcast in India in the late 1980s/early 1990s). Yes this obviously takes liberties but it’s no less faithful to the core story.

    One point on the Betty Boop likeness: this is how temple dancers are depicted in many carvings and statues, from the 9th or 10th century onward, especially in/on tantric temples. I have photos from the erotic panels of the temples at Khajuraho and the women frequently have this exaggerated hourglass figure.

    Another interest aspect of the representations of the characters is that she uses different artistic styles, from those found in contemporary Hindu paintings to the more delicate and lovely style of Mughal miniatures.

  10. Jayne
    May 23, 2011 @ 05:14:42

    @Sunita: I’ve seen pictures of the temple dancers and know what you’re talking about. I guess it’s just seeing Sita depicted this way that caused the fuss.

    It’s been awhile since I checked in at the Sitasingstheblues website. Wonder if she has any plans for other films?

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