Sita Sings the Blues

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

The limited, artisanal, occasionally lo-fi animation of Nina Paley’s film works really effectively, really tremendously. It isn’t trying to compete in an arena—all the technology, all the budgets, all the minions to execute and distribute for you—in which it would be too strapped to ever measure up. Instead Sita Sings the Blues is frankly, even defiantly being itself, which is to say something completely different from the run-of-the-mill. It’s a really salutary difference too—like Zagreb or the NFB next to Mirisch, maybe. There are lots of ways to skin the cat!

It might seem a vanity to appropriate and subordinate the ancient, resonant, mythological Ramayana to one’s own small modern life, and to the woes one encounters therein. On the other hand, though the culturally or politically obscure don’t tend to generate their own myths, they can certainly turn large-scale, pre-existing myths to their own advantage. It’s not just the scriptures that a person can liken unto himself. (Wait, Westerner—these are scriptures!) Anyway, Nina Paley, or rather the “Nina Paley” who is the protagonist of this film, may be somewhat self-absorbed, but that self-absorption is pretty explainable, probably temporary, and just one of the registers operating in this plentiful film.

The thing is, there’s way more than just narcissism going on here. The Indian chorus, these three young sophisticates who relate, invert, double back on and argue over the generating myth of the Ramayana, insure that we go way beyond the Paley sub-plot. These commentators are delightful, intelligent, confident, funny, simultaneously self-justifying and self-deprecating. They repeatedly get it wrong, and then admit it, and then wonder if apparent error is so wrong after all. Just right! This critical, commentating chorus raises issues of authenticity and authority—what is the real version, what is the right version?—causing viewers to consider what we might owe to sources, and how we might interrogate or add to those sources. The fact that Paley renders these moderns through the use and manipulation of ancient shadow puppets only adds to the deepening and the broadening.

Paley makes liberal use of the 1930s recordings of American jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw. This material works really well. On one level it motivates a cool series of musical numbers, a performative component that helps us focus on the craft (animation is all about joints!), as well as the fact that this is an anthology film. This means that without going too far or getting at all disorganized, Sita Sings the Blues utilizes and demonstrates a whole catalogue of animation methods. The Hanshaw stuff also brings to mind the music that Pier Paolo Pasolini used for his historic Jesus film,  The Gospel According to Matthew (1964): tons of diversity, lots of periods and idioms, but still a unifying pattern underneath. This is heterogenesis—every culture knows and tells this story. Cultural divergence, on this or any other subject, can be problematical. But if we’ll have it it can also be really interesting. And against all of this divergent perspective and experience we still, always have universality—sometimes we all feel like a motherless child.