Western twist to Indian epic

CROSSING CULTURAL BORDERS: From Sita Sings The Blues, and (right) Nina Paley

CROSSING CULTURAL BORDERS: From Sita Sings The Blues, and (right) Nina Paley  


‘Sita Sings The Blues’, an award-winning animation film by an American, presents an unconventional image of Sita. Will it be seen in India?

Nina has incorporated various forms such as collage, poster art and cartoons, to convey the richness of the EPIC.

It’s not often that you see a film on the Ramayana, where Rama is less than godly, where Sita sings the blues, where the revered pair is ‘connected’ to a new-age couple in New York, and the epic of the East becomes a kind of urban legend of the West.

And all this, in the form of an animation drama, created on a small home-computer by a American cartoon-artist, after a short trip to India. When Nina Paley returned from India, her marriage broke up, but the Ramayana story she encountered there stayed in her head. Her pain, anger and confusion were further accentuated, when she heard the songs of the 1920s Blues singer Annette Hanshaw. “Her voice was so sweet and vulnerable, but the pain was so real.”

Sensational response

Sita’s image came to Nina’s mind at once. She delved into every English book on the Ramayana, poured into Indian art books, sourced some blues music, and started piecing them all together. Nina put all her money into it, borrowed $ 50,000, and says she is still in debt. Her low self-esteem translated into high art when, after five years of hard work, ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ was premiered at the Berlin festival, and created a sensation. The film evoked the same reaction at the Tribeca festival.

Since then, the film has been to about 100 festivals around the world, another 100 arts and educational centres, won more than 20 awards, and garnered rave reviews in the top newspapers of the world But the film has not been seen in India, and that bothers the director. “Pretty much everyone in India is familiar with the Ramayana, which makes them the best audience in the world for ‘Sita Sings the Blues’.” she said in an e-mail interview. The director is right. The story zips across the Epic, casually mentioning names, characters and incidents with a speed that an Indian audience can relate to easily. Much of this has to do with the director ‘telescoping’ the time, place and characters, to give it a global dimension. Thus, there are three ‘suffering’ women-protagonists in the story — Sita, the queen of Ayodhya, whose husband did not trust her, Sita, the singer of blues songs, whose man has left her, and Nina, the working woman in New York, whose husband walked out on her.

The director criss-crosses these three tales with clever ingenuity, hurtling across geographical, musical and cultural boundaries, fleshing out three stories in three different time-zones, all of which have one ending — the rejected woman. But Nina does not make it a feminist drama or paint the men black. She makes them ambiguous, which gives a certain balance to the film.

A highlight of the film is the use of three ‘commentators’, who serve as a kind of ‘chorus’, offering a contemporary outlook on the Ramayana. They are shadow puppets from Indonesia, but their accents, tone and comments are Indian. What’s interesting is that they have an informal tone, as they avidly discuss the characters and incidents of the story, while they stream across the screen. Nina says the conversation was totally ‘un-scripted’, and done by well-known American-Indian friends who deliberately enunciated an Indian accent (one of them is Manish Acharya, the director of ‘Loins of Punjab.’)

As for the animation technology, Nina says she has incorporated various forms such as collage, poster art and cartoons, to convey the richness of the Ramayana. The music is another highlight. Apart from the soulful Blues songs, there is a wealth of songs and rhythms that keeps the film swinging. The film will certainly spur debates, and one is reminded of Mallika Sarabhai’s production ‘Sita’s Daughters’ that spurred much discussion. “India is all over the world now, through its diasporas. The whole world is connected to it, including me”, says Nina.

One hopes the film will be seen in India, when the festival-circuit gets rolling this year. But in order to ensure that her film could be seen by maximum audiences, the director recently made ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ available free online. “Art has no life if people can’t share it,” Nina says.

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