Nina Paley’s beautifully-animated “Sita Sings The Blues” mixes a feminist retelling of parts of the “The Ramayana”, with the true life tale of her intercontinental break up to fascinating effect.
Her postmodern flash animation psychedelic images, based in part on the classic Gujarat style of drawings is endlessly seductive, especially when she adds the swing styling of Annette Hanshaw. Watching buxom Sita croon (in Hanshaw’s voice) to her hunky blue skinned Rama is too silly.
The lovers spoon in an abstract geometrical forest surrounded by Hindu monsters, which come apart like Mr. Potato Head, all gorgeously colored in Paley’s trippy bright palette. Her story begins with a loosely drawn Feifferesque scene of domestic bliss in San Francisco, where Nina lives with her hubby Dave and her freaked out kitty. (Crazy about her cats.They deserve their own film!). Dave gets an animating job in India. Nina takes him to the airport.
Paley’s second style emerges. Indonesian Shadow puppet wise guys (voiced by (Aseem Chhabra, Manish Acharya and Bhavana Nagulapally) quibble about the Ramayana. Their digressive, quasi-improvised dialogue noodles around the story, like a Fractured Fairy Tale for the new millennium.
The shadow puppet segments are witty collaged illustrations of the puppets banter. Their narrated Ramayana illustrates Sita and Rama in almost traditional 18th Century folkart images from Rajput.
Back home in San Fran, Nina gets a call from Dave. It’s his first call in a month. Good News, his jobs’ been extended! Nina sublets her apartment (with Kitty) and flies to India. Dave seems strangely uninterested in NIna, when she arrives in India. She travels around the world just to get dumped.
Extravagantly hand made and funky, endlessly inventive, Paley’s film references Max Fleisher’s Betty Boop. Underground comics and UPA Studio’s landmark animation. Joshing Bollywood, she even includes an intermission. When Jealous Rama puts Sita on a funeral pyre, hip swinging curvaceous Sita (Hanshaw) croons “Mean To Me.” In one witty swing number, monkey warriors brandish scimitars, beheading Sita’s captors as she breaks in “Whose That Knocking At My Door?”
Music rights to the Hanshaw tunes held the film back from distribution, so resourceful Paley made the film available to watch online under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-alike 3.0 Unported license. While her masterpiece languished in copy write hell, a group of conservative Hindus, and a PC left-wing group of academics called for a ban on the “derogatory act against the entire Hindu community.”
Like Sita, Nina survived and grew. At last her dazzling film comes to the screen. MISS AT YOUR CULTURAL PERIL. Opened on April 23 at Laemmle Music Hall.