Sita Sings the Blues Movie Review

The more love changes the more it stays the same. History itself falls prey to love in this delightful retelling of the Ramayana

Emerging writer/director Nina Paley has produced a gem of a film with the animated tale “Sita Sings the Blues. Winner of a Crystal Bear Special Mention award at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival the movie is the retelling of the ancient Indian legend of Ramayana with very modern overtones. The screenplay manages to mix the old and the new in a marvelous retelling of an ancient story that seems strangely autobiographical.

If it isn’t a story that Paley has lived it is the universal story of love and loss. The narration of the Ramayana is interspersed with the animated story of a very modern love story in which the man leaves the woman for career, adventure and perhaps other unstated reasons. The point is, one day he is there and the next day he is not. This story runs parallel to the story of Sita in the Ramayana in which the faithful wife Sita suffers for her beauty. In the end she is rejected because of the weaknesses of the men who desire her. She drops into the earth and achieves eternal life as a spirit, forever reminding us of her story.

The story is fun listening, in and of itself, but it is the animation and soundtrack that make the film a charmer. The opening sequence is one of the most novel and fascinating music/sound creations to be seen in any animated film. This quality echoes throughout the 82 minutes of the movie with the archival recording of 1920’s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw providing the vocal track set to the simple but mesmerizing animation of Nina Paley.

Hanshaw was a star in the late 1920’s with her simple, child-like vocal presentation. Far from the sultry seductress sound that achieved greater popularity in jazz and blues performances, Hanshaw’s phrasing and tone reflected the innocence of Sita. Sita’s action came from heart as did Hanshaw’s singing (at least so it seems). The childlike innocence of both women resonates with the simplicity and synchronicity of the animation and directness and even uncertainty of the narration.

The film is narrated by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally and Manish Acharya in a conversational manner. The three persons alternate story lines, telling conflicting versions of the original tale. They seem to be working out the details of the story as the film is being recorded. This is very effective in the context of uncertain love that ends suddenly without warning. It contrasts completely with traditional narration that is usually absolutely flat and concrete. In most films it is the one thing that is all knowing beyond argument.

In this film there is a debate going on in the background as to what actually happened and how the events should be interpreted. This is echoed throughout the film with the irrational reactions of the loving couple. In one superbly understated love scene Rama becomes confused as to how Sita’s virtue should be tested, whether the woman sinking during the trial by water shows she is virtuous or not. Seemingly a minor point in the man’s mind, it is something of considerable importance if you are the woman.

The “Sita Sings the Blues” distribution was conducted by, a non-profit established to question and create critical dialog about modern copyright law. Their position is that copyright law restricts creativity and should change to a more unrestricted form of distribution.

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Directed by: Nina Paley
Written by: Nina Paley (screenplay) and Valmiki (book)

Release: April 23, 2010
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 82 minutes
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color