Oral history has a way of fluctuating. Men transform into monsters, fish become larger than life and a tale retold may bear little resemblance to its first iteration. But there's a tacit understanding that the written word will remain consistent, with minor differences in translated or condensed works. The Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic, is an exception. First appearing in the fourth century B.C., the text has survived in several thousand partial or completed manuscripts, but with vastly different perspectives and styles. Nina Paley, a Brooklyn-based animator, continues this tradition in Sita Sings the Blues, another unique retelling of what Paley terms "the greatest breakup story ever told."
Told with more sympathy toward the title character than most versions, the film follows prince Rama (voiced by Debargo Sanyal), who is banished to live in the forest by his father at the request of a jealous queen. Rama's dutiful wife Sita (Reena Shah) exiles herself with him, despite Rama's worried objections for her safety. When the demon king Ravena (Sanjiv Jhaveri) kidnaps Sita and whisks her away to his island kingdom of Lanka, she refuses to submit to his lecherous advances, waiting patiently for Rama's rescue. With the assistance of monkey god Hanuman (Aladdin Ullah), Rama slays Ravena and returns with Sita to his father's palace. But his doubts regarding her fidelity cause a permanent rift between the two formerly blissful lovers, and even Sita's submission to trials of purity cannot assuage his misgivings.
Like the pieced-together manuscripts that give rise to the story, Paley creates an exuberantly colorful collage of animation styles, mixing traditional Rajput paintings and silhouetted shadow puppets in the expository scenes with slickly updated Betty Boop-like sequences for Sita's frequent musical outbreaks. Interposed with these is the less convictive, but obviously more personal story of Paley's own divorce, told with the annoying, but blessedly brief squiggle-vision technique--a style re-popularized by Red Bull commercials. Add on top a rotoscoped Hindi dance performance, and you have a rapid-fire recounting of some major acmes in the history of animation artistry. It's cacophonous, chaotic and extremely compelling. There is never an unworthy moment on-screen, each shot framing endless eye-candy.
Although outwardly placid, Sita's interjectory jazz numbers--provided by vintage recordings of the great Annette Hanshaw--give beat to the emotional heart of the story, which is otherwise mostly told in the straightforward manner consistent with antiquated epics. The inclusion of three contemporary, opinionated and disagreement-prone puppet narrators (Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya) hilariously highlights the source material's discrepancies, while Paley's own story adds a contemporary voice to the chorus of wronged women.
The assemblage of the film also mirrors the piece-meal nature of the Ramayana. Paley first began creating episodic snippets of the story in 2002, following her divorce, which appeared at various animation festivals. The full-length film, which runs 82 minutes, debuted at 2008's Berlin International Film Festival, where it was awarded the Crystal Bear: Special Mention in the Best Feature Film category. Despite its global accolades and the remixed nature of the "original," Sita Sings the Blues has stirred up a fair amount of controversy from conservative Hindu sectors, leading to a petition to ban the film and initiate legal action against Paley and her crew. Coupled with copyright problems with the Hanshaw recordings and a consequential miniscule distribution, it's a near-miracle that it plays on-screen anywhere. Its appearance here is a happy circumstance that should be celebrated and supported.
Sita Sings the Blues is a rare jewel, an adult-oriented animation that rarely feels like a gimmick and never appears cheap. A million-buck film made for mere dollars, it survives through sponsorships, special screenings and word-of-mouth murmurings. It would be a tragedy if this bold retelling of the Ramayana were to disappear into the deep and fragmented history of its innumerable ancestors.