Back in February, I came across an article by Margy Rochlin in the New York Times charting the making of a new self-financed animated American musical titled “Sita Sings the Blues about an Indian fable reworked from a modern perspective by an American cartoonist called Nina Paley. Using the 3,000-year-old famous legend of the “Ramayana as a template to chronicle her collapsing marriage, the premise of Paley’s film intrigued me and I decided to purchase the DVD when released. What I didn’t realize is that Paley had made an audacious move few filmmakers before her have dared to commit: she made her film available online for free.
Months later, I downloaded the 4 GB, 1080p (HD) version from Paley’s website, put it on a blank disk and watched it on my TV.
“Your Name Here presents, the opening credits began; “In association with Your Money; A Funded by You production. A four-handed, dark-skinned female figure adorned with ornaments from head to toe, and showing considerable cleavage, arises from water and signals a peacock-controlled phonograph to play. A 1920s’ jazz tune is heard as the female figure start to dance.
What follows in the next 80 minutes is a rhapsodic collage of color, music and comedy, all set to the recordings of 1920s’ American chanteuse Annette Hanshaw. The experience was downright exhilarating. I’m not a big fan of American animations, but “Sita was unlike any mainstream American cartoon I’ve seen in the past few years. Highly original, sophisticated and incredibly entertaining, Paley’s film stands in a league of its own. America’s most influential film critic, Roger Ebert, called it one of the year’s best films. I couldn’t agree more.
The “Ramayana is an epic poem from 1000 BC that most Indians, and pretty much the majority of Southeast Asians, know by heart. Subtitled as “The Greatest Breakup Story Ever Told, the tale of the “Ramayana centers on Rama, the elder son of Kosala’s king Dasharatha, who gets banished for 17 years in order to prove his worth and inherit his father’s throne. His faithful and noble wife, Sita, refuses to leave her husband’s side and decides to accompany him to the feral, demon-inhabited, forest.
Ravana, the multi-headed, multi-armed king of Lanka, falls under Sita’s spell. He abducts her but doesn’t force himself on her. Rama discovers Sita’s whereabouts, embarks on a mission to rescue her with the aid of a monkey army and defeats Ravana.
Vicious rumors that Sita might have slept with Ravana drive Rama to question his wife’s fidelity. To clear her name, she undergoes a purity test and passes it. Yet Rama remains skeptical and 17 years later, he resolves to banish his pregnant wife.
The story of “Ramayana is juxtaposed by Nina’s own break-up story, set in a modern day San Francisco, that shares many similarities with the Indian poem, including, most importantly, an ungrateful, hardhearted husband. Each of the two stories employs a drastically different visual design from the other.
The tale of the “Ramayana is narrated by three silhouetted shadow puppets who spend the duration of the film arguing about facts, dates, character motifs and several minor details. The three narrators are the real source of comedy in the film, interpreting the ancient tale from a modern viewpoint via a series of hilarious conversations that have been ad-libbed.
The story is told via three different visual patterns. The first one uses hand-painted water-colored paintings that act out the story in a straightforward narrative. The second one casts cutout images that, I assume, have been amassed from various sources for illustrating the shadow puppets’ commentary. Most amusing is the third; a series of music numbers that sees all characters depicted via slick cartoons with Sita taking on the form of Grim Natwick’s sultry cartoon heroine Betty Boop from the 1930s as she sings Hanshaw’s songs.
Nina’s present-day story, on the other hand, is rendered via simple, comic strip-like lines. There seems to be a radical contrast between the fiery colorfulness of the Ramayana story and the rather subdued color structure of the modern-day San Francisco/Brooklyn.
Paley’s clearly fond of this distant place. She initially takes it as a haven to escape the agony of her break-up and later, as a utility for her healing process. The stories of both Sita and Nina are augmented by Hanshaw’s music that gives Paley’s heartache a tender voice.
What’s astonishing about this particular part is the wide range of emotions Paley conveys using few lines. For my money, Nina’s economical 2-D art-work feels much more human than the most lavish 3-D productions I’ve seen of late.
There are plenty of features to marvel at in Paley’s film, from the singing birds and cool monsters to the side-splitting battle scenes and the emotional frankness of Nina’s story. Every minute of the film pulsates with boundless imagination, eccentricity and wit. With a budget of about $200,000, Paley has managed to accomplish what dozens of mainstream American animation, including Pixar, have failed in: to produce an accessible work for all ages that, nevertheless, eschews conventions and clichés.