This is not your traditional love story- or any kind of story, for that matter. Ever imagined that an ancient Hindu myth of thwarted love, heroic princes, and nine-headed deity-kings could be told through flash animation and 1920s jazz and blues? “Sita Sings the Blues” is animated sword-and-sandals epic of a uniquely hybrid India-meets-America variety. As Nina Paley, artist and animator/director, described the confluence of inspirations that led her to create the film: “The project chose me.” Paley gave a lecture this Wednesday and spoke with a smaller group of students at a dinner hosted in the quad.
Paley dropped out of University of Illinois after two unfulfilling years and moved to Santa Cruz to pursue her art and, as she put it, “become a hippie.” In the early 2000s, Paley accompanied her husband to the Indian city of Trivandrum, where she was exposed to Indian culture for the first time. That was also around the time she discovered the music of forgotten 20s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. These different cultural elements became the recipe that inspired the film; soon she began sketching drawings of ancient Hindu icons and weaving the narratives together with Hanshaw songs. Sita Sings the Blues tells the tragic story of Rama, a Hindu prince, and his unconditionally loving wife, Sita, as their love is tested throughout various adventures and encounters with Hindu gods. The stories are from the epic Sanskrit poem Ramayana, a canonical part of the Hindu history within Indian culture. The film is also partly autobiographical (the American characters’ story is the break-up of Paley and her husband.
The film joins segments of wildly different visual and narrative styles- including music, dance, dramatic scenes, and oral storytelling. There is a particularly phantasmagoric sequence of an Indian woman singing and dancing in a riot of colors, captured through rotoscope technique where live-action image is reduced to simple line drawings. Paley explained that the different painting and illustrating styles she used to render the same characters explored the wealth of ancient religious art as well as Indian oral history traditions. In fact, some of the most amusing moments of the film happen in segments where three shadow puppets squabble, joke, and correct each other as they narrate Sita and Rama’s story. The puppets’ voices were provided by some of Paley’s Indian-American friends and recorded in one long session- the dialogue is completely unscripted, and the wit and humor of these three add another dimension to the many facets of the film. Though Sita incited backlash from fundamentalists for showing Rama, an important religious figure, in a morally ambiguous way that does not fit with their portrayal of him (the film, however, does stay true to the Ramayana,) it has met with acclaim at many film festivals and a positive response from the Indian community.
Ultimately, description falls short- there is no easy way to understand what Sita is about unless you see it for yourself. It is at once a homage to Indian myth and history and a deeply entertaining reinvention of a tale that is thousands of years old. (Click here for full film.)
Paley hasn’t rested after completing the film, promoting it by making it free and available to watch online through all. In an entertainment industry where everything is copyrighted and commodified for profit, her unique approach invites other artists to make their own interpretations of her work and make it their own. In fact, an Indian designer even created an entire collection inspired by Sita and played the film on the runway.
Paley is currently working on her blog, a new comic strip, and a short film called “All Creative Work is Derivative” tracing the similarities of art between different ancient cultures- through clever editing of quick snapshots of still images, she choreographs a series of statues to make them look like they are seamlessly ‘dancing.’ The effect is quite hypnotic- watch the clip below.
-Iris You ’13