Quick update: Dear Cinema reports that Sita sings the blues has won at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. Read the report here.
In a typically high-strung moment in the narrative of Sita sings the blues, Soorpanakha tells Ravana: “Hey brother, you must steal Sita. She is the most beautiful woman in the world. Her hands, they are like lotuses, her skin’s fair like the lotus blossom, her eyes are like lotuses, her breasts are like big, round, firm, juicy…lotuses!”
Now you can blame it all on the election season that I am reading too much into the poor demon’s figure of speech in the above extract. It must only be a wicked coincidence that arguably the most reviled female character in the Ramayana – at least in popular imagination – invokes the ‘lotus’ so many times to conjure a seductive aureole around inarguably the most sacred Indian woman of all time, real or fictitious. Nina Paley, the impish creator of Sita Sings the Blues, must only be making fun of Soorpanakha’s limited vocabulary through her parrot-like use of Hindu India’s most powerful icon to weave a covetous trap that will eventually prove to be the undoing of her very worthy, level-headed brother. The motif that I seem to have discerned in all this must really be balderdash…but what the heck, I am proud of it anyway! And I am sure I won’t be alone in my vanity, for Sita Sings the Blues is bound to create a retinue of proud devotees just like me, each exiting their media player proud of their own little trophy from the film’s virtually inexhaustible cabinet of possibilities. I say ‘media player’ because Sita Sings the Blues has not been released to theatre audiences, thanks to a ridiculous strife with Hollywood studios. (Check this out: http://blog.ninapaley.com/2008/08/26/music-industry-on-culture-killing-spree).
Sita Sings the Blues is a veritable circus of ideas. Not unlike the ones we all visited as kids, Nina’s circus too converges on the trapeze act, and the swing she chooses is the pendulous question of ownership over popular culture, particularly our stories and myths. Quite separate from the perils of culture falling into the wrong hands, there is a far more fundamental question that often escapes us: do we belong to our stories or do they belong to us? It is curious that communities with an organic heritage of epic storytelling often tend to be owned by their stories rather than owning them. Storytelling should be an unapologetically secular exercise, but the Ramayana has proved how perverse things can turn out to be if stories suddenly turn themselves into religious enema, sparing only the prostrate. Characters that need little more than their sheer complexity to grip us turn into moral booby traps, and before we realise it, a free cultural artefact turns into a sillyfaced monster ever hungry for obeisance. Paley’s Sita, performing Annette Hanshaw’s mid-20s’ lilts with obvious élan under the spotlight and finding time to steal a few wet kisses with her superman lover, even as the lover and his monkey army indulge in a gore fest, is a gigantic smack-on-the-buttocks for this monster, and one hopes it goes a long way in domesticating the conceited creature. This is a storyteller firmly claiming control over the story and having a lot of fun in the process. In her anarchic hands, characters which had built careers over a few centuries out of being solemn let their hair down and look mischievously free. Ravana appeases Shiva by playing the veena with his coiled innards and later tries to threaten Sita into acquiescence by unleashing his goofy demons at her. Hanuman jigs to Sita’s lovelorn rhapsody, offers her bananas as she bemoans her solitary life, and sets Lanka on fire with a facial expression that befits a labour of love. Rama casually kicks Sita into the agnipareeksha pier with an almost audible whistle – twice – and the narrator ascribes it to “peer pressure”. Lava and Kusha eulogise the righteous king by pointing out how he messed up Sita’s life for the sake of duty. These are characters proving their potential as performers and not drudging along as types for possibly the first time in the long history of Ramayana’s renditions, existing for the stage, for the screen, dramatic, unbound and grossly over the top at times, irreverent to their well-manured images, mad and chaotic as only a newly free tribe can be. An entire cast revelling in exaggeration and hyperbole, all thanks to a director who gives them a free run. Add to this a set of profane speculating sutradhars borrowed from the Indonesian Ramayana convention, constantly questioning and confounding the traditional understanding of the story – how could Sita have dropped her jewels en route Lanka after her kidnapping? Didn’t she leave Ayodhya as a sannyasin, without any jewellery in the first place?! – and it is clear that Paley’s Ramayana is indeed about an aesthetic based on the grand possibility of creative interrogation that needs to be preserved and reinforced, so that the epic can burn holes in the rigid moral/religious straitjacket assigned to it by custom. That it is an animation helps it establish its rampantly burlesque agenda. That it uses blues – the anathema of elitist expression – as the predominant form of expression gives it an anchor in popular culture and helps it steer home that agenda.
Like any free-spirited performance celebrating itself, Sita sings the blues lets its players continuously reinterpret themselves. This explains the existence of two simultaneous and visually distinct tracks in the narrative – one which uses conventional imagery and icons and more or less sticks to the traditional storyline, and the other that deploys bizarre caricatures to blow away the cover from that storyline. Impatience with staid interpretations is writ large even on the former track though, expressed mainly through the excessive disconnect between how the characters look and how they talk. It is hilarious, for instance, to hear a sombre and familiar-looking Ravana rebuking Soorpanakha in heavily accented English! The latter track is driven by figures like a rotund-bosomed, blues-crooning Sita and a suspiciously monkey-faced Rama. Just what such quirky juxtaposition does to the ‘image’ of the characters is aptly brought out when one of the sutradhars quips how Ravana looks exactly like Mogambo when he is angry – an audacious inversion that turns the tables on the ‘archetypal Indian villain’ rendered imposing by age and tradition, tethering him to a half-ludicrous twin from the 20th century, shattering the very distance that elevated him in the first place. And the characters themselves clearly love every bit of their newfound cockiness, leading the way when it comes to enjoying the alternative script. In what is definitely the most entertaining ‘intermission’ ever, sages, demons and monkeys walk right out of the screen led by Rama, Sita and Hanuman and return only after securing their fix of cola and popcorn, as excited in anticipation of what the director has saved up for them in the second half as the audience itself!
The biggest beneficiary of the film’s performative excesses and rebellious self-definition is perhaps its subaltern politics. One could write loads about the concluding scene in which Narayani employs Vishnu’s services to have her feet pressed or the mad psychedelic sequence in which Sita hits out at the jury sitting in judgment over her purity. To this viewer however, the biggest winner is the Great (Indian) Story, with the auteur and the audience on either side of it, delightfully brought to bear by the film’s little subplot involving the marital disintegration of a software engineer couple, Dave and Nina. Dave abandons Nina for no good reason, leaving her lonely and frightened in a seedy apartment crawling with insects and nightmares. Their story is an obvious mirroring of the greatest breakup of all time – that between Rama and Sita – but the interplay between the two tales does not end there. After making peace with her loneliness and cleaning up her apartment, Nina goes to bed with the Ramayana in hand, and one can only imagine that she finds solace in Sita’s epiphany at the end of the story. This is indeed the most sacred function of storytelling – helping the reader/recipient make sense of life, palliating the aridity of one’s circumstances by connecting them with a much larger, even cosmic, context. Pitted against this, the liturgical virtues of the Ramayana become almost criminally superfluous, for the epic can do us far greater service from our bookshelves and bedsides than we can ever do it from our petty consecrated chambers of worship.
PS: As hinted at in the introductory paragraph, every viewer of the film can find themes in it to fill volumes with. The use of colours, music, 2D graphics and voiceovers in the film each merit independent reviews. Getting so many reviews shouldn’t be a problem though, since Sita sings the blues is freely available in pirateland as part of a ‘Creative Commons License’ arrangement.
Published review here: http://dearcinema.com/sita-sings-the-blues-the-pirated-ramayana/