Taking my mom’s advice and giving myself a day to enjoy some time to myself last Friday, I went to see Nina Paley’s animated film, “Sita Sings the Blues” on the strength of A. O. Scott’s enthusiastic review in the Times. (There's an earlier positive review here.)
It’s such a treat. Just look at the art!
The movie parallels Nina Paley’s own failed marriage, precipitated by her (now ex-) husband’s move to India for a job, with the miserable and humiliating plight of Sita, the wife of Ram, as detailed in the Ramayana.
There is so much to love here: the art is exuberant and funny and the improbable (and slightly wacky) parallel works because it’s not forced, because it’s treated with wry feminist humor, and because the varied drawing styles and vivid, smart writing (especially the chorus of three Indonesian shadow puppets who appear from time to time to bicker over their imperfect memories of the story of Sita) keeps it lively.
We mostly follow poor Sita, who follows Ram into exile in a dangerous forest where she is kidnapped. When Ram finally rescues her, he forces her to undergo a purity test (by fire), which she passes. Still doubting, he exiles the pregnant Sita a second time. She raises his children in the forest, teaching them to love Ram. These episodes of the epic humiliation of a faithful wife are intercut by the minor key and excruciating scenes of a drably drawn Nina being scolded by Dave when she arrives in India. Her exuberant hug and kiss is met with a cold: “Don’t kiss me in public! This is India!”
I have dated that guy. It stinks.
I didn’t know till afterwards that the film's distribution had been held up because, in using 20s recordings of blues singer Annette Hanshaw (whose songs are a highlight, coming out of a Betty-Boop style Sita’s mouth), she ended up owing about $50,000 in rights to others. (Don't get me started on how unfair copyright is to artists and scholars!) All the copyright nightmares—now resolved—are detailed here. They mean, happily for you, that you can watch Sita for free online! Or buy the DVD. Do it. There are so few great films by women and Nina Paley did EVERY BIT of this by herself. It's amazing.
It’s a great movie!