Sita Sings the Blues, Just for You

Roger Ebert calls it an “astonishing original” and something that has him “smiling from one end of the film to the other.” I am of course talking about Nina Paley’s animated film Sita Sings the Blues. A project of passion, Nina has worked on this film on and off over the past five years. The Mutiny has followed Nina’s progress over the past few years of development and finally, her Sita Sings the Blues is finished in it’s entirety.

On Saturday March 7th, if you have access to WNET NY Channel 13, set your TiVo for 10:45 because Sita Sings the Blues will be broadcasted. Not in NY? Not to worry, the film can be watched fully online streamed from the Reel 13 Blog right now and will be available to download in various forms on March 7th from the site.Sita Sings the Blues Poster.jpg

What exactly is Sita Sings the Blues? I got to watch the full movie this weekend and it’s…. well it’s…well a cartoon, I guess? But it’s like, wow….and unlike any cartoon I’ve ever seen. And a musical… and there is dancing, and blood. And puppets, really funny puppets. With four different parallel stories. About Sita. Hmm…I’m at a loss for words. Nina Paley calls her movie, “…a personal, musical, animated interpretation of Sita’s story in the Ramayana set to old American jazz and blues by Annette Hanshaw.” But really, it’s so much more than that.

I got the chance to catch Nina before she flew off to Vienna for an animation conference. Just for you, an exclusive interview with the writer, director, animator, and producer of Sita Sings the Blues, Nina Paley:

I’ve heard you say in the past that this story was developed after you yourself experienced heartbreak. In a very stark way, you placed yourself as an animated character in the final product. In one part of the film, the animated version of you is in black lingerie trying to get your husband to take notice of you. Why did you make the movie so personal when you had the option of not?

I was making the Sita segments to tell my story. In real life, when I explained that, people were at least as interested in what happened to me….so the autobiographical bits serve as a built-in FAQ. Might as well put that into the film itself, instead of just the inevitable press kit.

It was a very personal project from the beginning. Including the autobiographical bits emphasizes that. I didn’t set out to tell THE Ramayana, only MY Ramayana. I wanted to be very clear about my point of view, my biases.

Sita Sings Blues on Bed.jpgHas your Rama, your ex-husband Dave, seen the movie? How does he feel about his broken marriage being displayed on the ‘big screen’ like that?

He saw an almost-finished work-in-progress. I think he understands it’s my side of the story, from my point of view, about my feelings. I didn’t aim to speak for him, only for me. After viewing it he told a friend of mine he was “relieved.” I tried to focus on myself and my feelings; I still don’t understand why either of us behaved the way we did in real life, and I don’t think he knows either. I like the ambiguity of the Ramayana for that reason. It doesn’t explain why the characters behave as they do; only that they do.

A big part of your animation process involved the screening of clips of the movie to the internet community throughout your filmmaking process. What once started as an animated short is now a full fledged film. How have your thoughts evolved since you first started putting clips from the film online five years ago? You often got slammed by angry responses to the clips. How do you think that has shaped your thinking and the film?

It sure gave me a lot to think about during the production. It honed my philosophy. I wrote a bit about it as I went along, like this.

I learned more about Indian politics. At first I took every bait that came my way, but once my blog was overwhelmed by Hindutvadi trolls, I learned to ignore them. I also engaged in some thoughtful dialogs with critics, back when I had time. We never changed each others’ minds, but got better at articulating our points of view. All the online reaction continues to teach me about detachment. I can get just as attached to praise as to criticism; it’s up to me whether I’ll let it dominate my life.

Sita Sings the Blues Cast of Gods.jpg

My two favorite sequences are the musical montage of the opening where two gods are sailing through the sky…

That’s actually Vishnu and Laxmi, of whom Rama and Sita are said to be avatars. The very beginning of the film is Laxmi rising form the Eternal Waters, listening to a broken record. Spinning records, cycling Yugas, it’s all about cycles….

…as well as the dancing woman during the scene of heartbreak…

The dancing woman in that heartbreak scene, which I call Agni Pariksha, is Reena Shah, whom I videotaped and rotoscoped.

…What inspired you to mix up the animation styles?

Fear of boredom, mostly. But also to hint at what a wealth of visual traditions are associated with the Ramayana. I barely scratched the surface.

You also added some contemporary artists a contrast to the 1920s jazz music. How did you pick/find these musicians and decide to include them in the film?

Todd Michaelsen was engaged (now married) to Reena Shah, who played the speaking role of Sita. He ended up creating the title music and Agni Pariksha which Reena sang… Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose modern jazz graces the modern scenes, was my downstairs neighbor in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn…Rohan (“Rama’s Great” and “Burnt Sugar,” the music in the trailer) was recommended to me by Sank Sury, who I met at a Sepia Mutiny meetup. Nik Phelps, who did the “Intermission” music, was a collaborator of mine from San Francisco who since moved to Belgium. Masala Dosa is a French band who found me online and traded their CD to use in “Sita” for some animation to use in a music video. Their sound was perfect, and they – like the other collaborators – are the sweetest most wonderful people you could hope to meet. They’re all geniuses.

Sita Sings the Blues Puppet.jpgI loved the narration of by the black shadow puppets between each of the scenes…

The designs are based on Ramayana shadow puppets from Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and India.

…They had what sounded like very real dialogue – they were talking over each other and correcting each other. How much of that was scripted?

None – it was completely unscripted, 100% real.

Here’s how I got them all in the studio: I met Manish Acharya (Loins of Punjab Presents) through Manish Vij…I guess Manish V told Manish A to check out Sita, and then Manish A asked me to do animation for a Loins music video, and part of the payment was he’d let me record an interview.

Aseem Chhabra had written about me and Sita and I bumped into him at the Loins of Punjab screening. I asked if he’d lend his voice to an interview and he said yes. He actually met Manish the day of the recording – he interviewed him that morning for an article. They sound like best friends who have known each other forever, and they’re great friends now, but they’d just met that morning.

Bhavana Nagaulapally I met at a play reading of Anuvab Pal… Apparently, I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was the only white woman in the audience, and she asked, “are you Nina Paley?” She had a great voice, and I asked if she’d consent to the interview too. I didn’t know if she would – luckily she showed up, and was awesome, and the rest is history.

I was surprised when I was able to watch the film in its entirety online. Usually when films are made, you watch it in the theater or buy the DVD. Why are you opting to stream your film fully online? You mentioned that “Sita is in copyright jail and needs $43,000” on your blog – is the online release of the film related?

Sita Sings the Blues Flying.jpg

Yes. The whole struggle with our broken copyright system turned me into a Free Culture activist. I’m actually going to release all my old “Nina’s Adventures” and “Fluff” comics under a Share Alike (copyleft) license too. I saw what happened to Annette Hanshaw’s beautiful recordings: they got locked up so no one could hear them. I didn’t want that to happen to my film. My first concern is Art, and Art has no life if people can’t share it.

This is actually a very big subject. I’ve written a lot about it on my blog, including: Your Children are Not Your Children, Sita’s Distribution Plan, The Nina’s Adventure in Copyleft Project, Watch Me Go On and On and On About Copyright, Fairies are Forever, Copyright Was Designed By Distributors, Lessons Wrong and Right, and Free Culture.

It seems like you have been forced to take an alternative route to get your film out there. Where has it been screened? What’s in the future for Sita Sings the Blues?

The complete screening list is here. Giving Sita to the audience, its life is only beginning. As I wrote, “Like all culture, it belongs to you already….From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.” I’m excited to see what happens next.

How has your film been received, in particular the South Asian community as well as the Hindu community? What are the responses you’ve heard from viewers?

Oh my! I’ve gotten a LOT of love, and it means a lot to me. For example, here’s a great letter. There’s lots of discussion in the blogosphere, more than I could encapsulate here.

Do you feel like you were able to put your heartbreak to rest after the completion of this film?

Yes! Thank you Valmiki!

What next for Nina Paley?

Hopefully a bunch of shorts about Free Speech, which we’re currently calling Minute Memes. I’m all about the Free Speech/Free Culture right now.

Sita Sings the Blues Nina.jpg

And now: my big heartfelt thanks to Sepia Mutiny, whose discovery of the Sita work-in-progress changed my life. When I started Sita I hardly knew any Indians in New York, and was just blindly following my muse.

Sepia Mutiny (and Turbanhead and later Ultrabrown) connected the project with 1st- and 2nd-gen desis online and in real life. Manish Vij’s anti-Apu tirades bolstered my decision to avoid fake accents (even the super-stilted scripted dialog is performed by 2nd-gen desi actors, whose quasi-historical “Indian” accents are informed by their relatives). Sepia Mutiny is how I found Bhavana and, indirectly, Rohan. Thanks to Anna John, I’ll never misspell “Gandhi” again.

Also, when the hate mail came pouring in, there were always voices on Sepia Mutiny who remained intelligent and kind. The Hindutvadis wanted me to believe they alone spoke for “Indians” and “Hindus”; Sepia Mutiny and sites like it confirmed they did not. Not by a long shot.

Thanks, Nina

Thank YOU, Nina. You can watch Sita Sings the Blues online, and to follow the film’s progress you can visit www.sitasingstheblues.com. To read more of Nina’s writing, please visit her blog.

This entry was posted in Animation by Taz. Bookmark the permalink.

About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

156 thoughts on “Sita Sings the Blues, Just for You

  1. Thanks for the answer, Dhivya. I’m used to saying Ram, not Rama or Ramah. Tried to explain this to non-South Asian folks but didn’t have a rational answer. Now I do!

  2. “Consider Sita’s curvaceous booty. When she sings an upbeat or sexy song, it rotates like a seductive pendulum, in counterpoint to her bodacious boobs.”
    As Jerry Seinfeld would say: It offends me not as a jew but as a comedian.

    Personally I’m proud that my gods and goddesses are so bangin’.

  3. I thought it was kind of lame, except for the dance numbers. An ingenious tribute to Bollywood, if on purpose.

    Though of course it is questionable whether I have any artistic tastes at all. Also, a general ignorance of the Ramayana might have helped in maintaining my interest.

  4. Just saw SSTB today, and I was very impressed. Reading the descriptions, I was a little worried that the frame story (the divorce, I mean) would bother me — it’s usually not great when an artist puts herself in as a character (especially in an emotionally-sticky situation). But this was done very tastefully, and it didn’t distract from the main narrative.

    I really like the shadow puppet commentary — I like the way it showed the story as multiply-interpreted by differing story-telling traditions. It meshed well with the collage of differing animation styles mapped to variations of the narrative with their different tones: “serious”, “snarky”, “musical”. That emphasizes the living nature of the myth as a mirror to life. Really, it could be seen as a commentary on the need for a read-write nature of culture. For me, as another free-culture advocate, that resonates well with the way the film was produced and distributed. It’s also kind of cool that that was a real discussion, rather than being scripted.

    I must confess I am not familiar with the Ramayana, so this film is my first impression of it. But, in contrast to those here who seem to fear that it makes an unfair caricature of the original, I can only say that it is completely clear and up-front about being such a caricature.

    I feel like I’ve seen about as faithful a reproduction of the Ramayana as Veggie-Tales is of the Bible! But what’s wrong with that? I think Veggie Tales is cute, and I don’t see that it detracts from the original, because no one thinks it’s claiming to be the original. Likewise, SSTB is an interpretation in a limited context for a limited purpose based on a limited part of the story. If I decide to explore the Ramayana further, I’ll read it (probably abridged, with apologies to the purists).

    FWIW, I’m not comparing SSTB and Veggie Tales on aesthetics — I think that SSTB is artistically much classier — I just want to alay the fear that an outsider is going to get a false impression of the original from such a reflection. I think not, because we know it’s a reflection. Some of the posters here seemed to be so worried about this that I thought it needed to be said.

    As for the “right” of a modern American to reinterpret an ancient Indian work? Myths belong to everyone — that’s what gives them value. Whether the myth has any historical truth in it is almost irrelevant — the truth of such stories is internal.

    Would I so-easily accept such interpretations from a foreigner of Western ideas? I already have, one of my favorite modern interpretations of Revelations (which has got to be the weirdest product of the Christian religion, IMHO) was made by a Japanese animator. I’ve cursed Neon Genesis Evangelion for having a lousy ending and other narrative flaws, but it was a stylistically fascinating external look at the Christian apocalypse myth. Indeed it really made me think about the fact that I come from a culture with an apocalypse myth — how weird and scary must that seem to the Japanese that we have the end of the world all planned out in our mythology?

    And again, that leads back into the issue of free-culture and revising and reinterpreting art. So we come around again… :-)