At first glance, a young white woman sitting in her apartment in San Francisco and an ancient Hindu text whose origins stretch back thousands of years couldn’t seem further apart. However, against all odds, Nina Paley brought the disparate situations of her own life and that of Sita in the Ramayana together in order to create Sita Sings the Blues. An independent film almost entirely crafted and rendered by Nina Paley herself, Sita Sings the Blues is a love letter to the intersection of art, literature and the cultures that create them. This film beautifully demonstrates how a myth written an ocean away in an entirely different place and time can speak to the heart of someone entirely different from the original audience.
This film was made to be shared. Paley intentionally licensed it as a public domain work, saying “I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already.” This means it is free to legally watch online in multiple places. All you need to do is type the film’s name into your search bar and you will be able to watch the entire thing for free. For Paley, this was a personal project, one that took five years to complete. It is the story of how the tale of Ranma and Sita in the Ramayana helped her through her own divorce. While the original tale focuses mainly on Ranma and his glory and valor in all of his deeds, Paley saw herself in Sita, a faithful wife whose love and sacrifices went unappreciated.
The story is told in four distinct art styles. Though this would appear likely to cause dissonance and prevent cohesion in the overall work, each style is used with such intentional narrative precision that it aids the story’s flow. The primary style which the film is known for is vector graphic animation (shown in the image at the top of the page). This bold, highly stylized look is used whenever a song is sung and Sita tells the audience of her feelings through the beautiful tones of Annette Hanshaw, a famous American Jazz Age Singer. When the story is being told through the perspective of the original text, the style follows the 18th century Indian tradition of Rajput painting. Characters appear to be painted in place and are shown in profile with their torsos facing forward and their heads to the side. During points of narration, traditional Indian shadow puppets are shown in silhouette. Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya provide the voices for the puppets. They tell the story of Ranma and Sita in an ad-lib recording of them attempting to recall details from memory and getting mixed up in all the regional variants and logical inconsistencies that come with any myth. Finally, Paley’s own story is told using the Squigglevision technique. Constantly shaking lines give the modern scenes a fresh feel, like a rough sketch come to life. Each style is perfect for the emotions they are trying to evoke whether those be awe, empathy or humor.
Despite the serious subject matter to be found both in the text and in Paley’s own life story, Sita Sings the Blues is a comedy through and through. Each section of the story has its own flavor of humor, whether that be slapstick violence, witty banter or biting irony. The animation and dialogue are both sure to put smiles on audience’s faces. While there has been some controversy surrounding some public showings of the film, most who watch the film realize that the purpose of the satire is not directed at Hinduism or religion in particular, but rather at the inequalities within male and female romantic relationships that have existed from time immemorial. The injustices which Sita faces from her husband Ranma through his disregard of her own agency and needs painfully mirror Paley’s experience being abandoned by her husband in the modern day. Though the original folktale does not focus on Sita, any woman who hears the tale can put herself in Sita’s shoes and see how much differently the story plays out in her eyes. Just as Paley felt silenced and helpless from a divorce she had not expected or asked for, she was able to see herself in Sita and find solace through reading the Ramayana during some of her darkest days.
In the thousands of years in which literature has existed, both oral and written, the question of interpretation has been ever present. Who has the right to decided what a story is saying? Is that only in the hands of the author or does the audience have a say? Can a story created by one nation be reinterpreted in a valid way by another? There are no easy answers to these questions, otherwise we would have stopped asking them. However, I believe it is fair to acknowledge that truth, like the very nature of humanity, is complex and multi-faceted. There is more than one way that a story can be told. Sita Sings the Blues is a beautiful, thought-provoking film. It has been appreciated by critics and audiences alike and its status within the public domain allows it to be visible to countless people who would not otherwise be able to see it. This particular retelling of the story of Ranma and Sita is worthy of becoming a modern classic in its own right.