UCFS Screening #22: Sita Sings the Blues

As the last film in our “women directors” series, the idea of screening this came to me as I pondered on the different categories and carefully considered which one I thought could be considered most relevant in today’s society. Not to say it’s by any means more “important” than the other categories, or that this matters more than the others. Female directors are not usually appreciated in the scene, and honestly, most of the perspectives we get to see in the general media comes from men, which is why I thought it was a brilliant idea to include the category in the first place.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008) is a very interesting combination of three different stories mashed into one. One, a thousand-year-old Indian epic, the Ramayana, prevalent in Indian culture, that has been reproduced countless other times in the stage, in movies, in tv shows, in music, essentially any medium. In fact, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), which was also screened previously, showcased different versions of the story, had the characters watch a movie about it, they also watched a play, they talked about the story, and the main character’s name was Sita, which is also the name of Rama’s wife in the Ramayana.
The story tells of Rama, one of Vishnu’s avatars, and his wife Sita, a paragon of virtue, the perfect wife for the perfect man. The story follows their life after Rama is banished from his kingdom by his father at the request of one of his father’s wives, the trials and tribulations of the couple, Rama’s duty towards his people, and Sita’s undying devotion to her husband, even (or maybe especially) when he gives her his worst.
Another story, told in alternating segments with the Ramayana, and in a different art style altogether, follows an autobiographical story of the director of this film, Nina Paley, whose then husband moves to India for a job. This creates a great amount of tension on their marriage, and on Nina herself, alone in their apartment with their cat.
Her personal ordeal causes her to read the Ramayana and identify with Sita and the lovely voice of Annette Hanshaw, a turn of the century blues singer, whose songs are used to forward the story in the Ramayana segments.
Annette’s songs arguably make up the third story being told in the film. In using century-old music in her film, Nina intends to demonstrate that these ideas and feelings are timeless by definition. That her struggle is no newer than Ms. Hanshaw’s, or than Sita’s. The songs very cleverly synchronize the stories, serving as a bridge between them.
There are also shadow puppets, who tell the story (or rather, they bicker and argue over details they can’t remember well, or that cause conflict in the different versions of the Ramayana), an intermission and four different animation styles. This mélange of stories and styles is what makes this film so great, in my point of view.
This film is almost a single-woman effort. Nina wrote, directed, produced, animated, designed, edited, and did everything else in this film, unless otherwise specified, as is mentioned in the credits. She later made it Public Domain, partly because of problems with acquiring the rights to Annette Hanshaw’s songs, and because of free culture activism.
This literal age-old tale is retold gracefully in Sita Sings the Blues, with the added effect of a different perspective, from a woman so devoted to her husband and the idea of the perfect wife she would throw herself into trial of fire, a blues singer from a century ago, to a woman in a failing marriage, who goes through a journey of self-discovery as she learns about the other two.
That’s all.

By – Matheus Fernandes


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