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Sita Sings the Blues

sitaWednesday, October 2, 2013
Center for Korean Studies Auditorium at 6:30 PM

USA, 2008 (82 mins)

Director: Nina Paley
Writers: Nina Paley, Valmiki (original)
Animation: Nina Paley
Editing: Nina Paley
Songs: Annette Hanshaw
Cast: Annette Hanshaw, Aseem Chhabra (puppet 1 voice), Bhavana Nagulapally (puppet 2 voice), Manish Acharya (puppet 3 voice), Reena Shah (Sita), Debargo Sanyal (Rama), Nina Paley

sita 1Syndicated comic strip artist (Hots, Fluff), award-winning short film-maker (Storks), professor at Parsons School of Design and a 2006 Guggenheim Fellow, Nina Paley’s animated film, “Sita Sings the Blues”–yet another retelling of India’s great epic, Ramayana, is narrated as “the greatest breakup story ever told.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it, as some have done, “Sitayana”–for it tells the tale from the perspective of Sita, not unlike the oral retellings through the ages by village women that made Sita the focus of the story. Only, here, the story is told through the jazz tradition of “torch songs,” of a lovely, smoky-voiced lament at home in a dark New York lounge or bar, not the rural outposts of India.

Ramayana tells the story of Prince Rama, who has been banished to the forests for 14 years due to a boon given to his stepmother by his father, King Dasharatha. Ever the good son, Rama heads to exile with his loving wife Sita, who insists on accompanying him. When Sita is abducted by the ten-headed Ravana, King of Lanka, Rama battles the evil forces and gets her back. But the relationship is never the same, for doubt about his wife’s fidelity has set in, and Rama, ever the king and Ideal Man, feels he must uphold the moral dharma.

Paley enlisted three New Yorkers, Manish Acharya, Bhavna and Aseem Chhabra, to improvise and offer their thoughts on the Ramayana, its characters, their halos and their warts. These became the voices of three Indonesian shadow puppets in the film, irreverent and outspoken commentators on the Ramayana, bringing it right into today’s contemporary world. Amazingly, these critical scenes were not scripted, but recorded spontaneously.

This low budget movie conjured up on the computer by a single animator/artist over the course of five tedious years, has made big waves. It’s probably one of the most awarded and lavishly reviewed little films of the year. It has won fans and great praise–along with ample scorn and hate mail.

One could say it’s a Ramayana for our times. We’ve all seen the image of the mighty Lord Vishnu reclining on the Sesh Naga with Lakshmi massaging His feet. In Nina Paley’s ending, you have Lakshmi reclining on the Sesh Naga with Lord Vishnu massaging Her feet! There is a delicious irony in this, and somehow Nina Paley gets the last laugh.

-Lavina Melwani []

Our thanks to Nina Paley for making her film available in the Public Commons for all of us to enjoy.