I was reading an article about how the Delhi University has removed the scholarly work of Ramanujan and the article referenced the movie “Sita Sings the Blues” by Nina Paley. Someone I know told me that he took part in a protest against this movie some time ago and when I saw the reference to the movie, I decided to watch it so that I could see that all the hulla was about (just like I plan to read the 500 Ramayana’s article by Ramanujan). I was surprised to find an extremely unconventional distribution form for the movie — it is available for free, legal download here — http://sitasingstheblues.com/. I am not a big fan of DRMs and am totally for free press and free software, just like I am for free art, so score 1 for the director/writer/artist!
I watched the movie in two sittings, more owing to the fact that I had things to do rather than due to the movie itself, and to summarize my feelings, I think this is a landmark film which not only experiments with art and animation, but also weaves multiple stories, narrators, story-telling styles and dialogues in a colorful tapestry that transcends any animation that I have ever seen — and yes, that includes all of the work by Pixar. Paley mixes at least four animation styles, and borrows animation styles from Amar Chitra Katha to narrate the tale of the Ramayana from a feminine, Sita-centered perspective. The language and the dialogues are hilarious and the treatment of the multiple story arcs in the film are extremely well done. The narrators add a different dimension to the story, and are a constant reminder of how little the common man knows and understands the Ramayana, and what confusions prevail. The narrators also point out the inconsistencies that are rampant through the storyline and the male chauvinistic bias that the tale as known in common folklore carries. To me, this movie is a MUST watch for every Indian, just to understand how little we know and how warped our perception has become owing to the bland 1 dimensional story telling that is evident in serials on the telly and narratives by relatives. Paley’s silent nod to the various authors that she has read, at the end of the film, is pleasing to a book-o-phile like me, especially since I spotted Arisha Sattar and Ashok Banker on the shelf.
I have read Sattar’s wonderful abridged version and Banker’s detailed retelling and based on what I understand, the story that we know of — just as the narrators do — is not the one originally written by Valmiki. Several chapters were added to the original narrative, including Rama doubting Sita’s chastity. The more religious narratives by Kamban and Tulsidas and the extreme hardheadedness of the right-wingers implies that we are left with a mockery of such a beautiful piece of literature which talks about so many issues that are relevant even today. Questioning Rama’s decisions at each and every point and trying to analyze the rational behind the decision is what makes reading the Ramayana fun. If one starts off with the assumption that Rama can do nothing wrong, then we are left with a warped perspective on a tale that is classic. Paley’s masterpiece clearly reflects the love that Paley has for literature and her opinion of the actions in the Ramayana and her perspective of what is wrong with the decisions that Rama makes.
While there was one scene where Rama walks over a pregnant Sita — it was drawn in a jovial and light context — I cannot see any reason why any one would want to oppose the screening of this film! This is a masterpiece of animation, story telling and screenplay writing and is a MUST watch for anyone interested in the creative aspects of making a movie.