Sita Sings the Blues is a musical, animated interpretation of the Ramayana interspersed with autobiographical scenes from the creator’s own life. Nina Paley, the film’s creator, blends bright, colourful and cartoon-ish animations styles with Anne Hershaw’s old-time music to create a piece of work that’s almost overwhelming to the senses – it’s totally immersive. Paley explores the story of Sita in the Ramayana and draws parallels to her own life, specifically, the breakdown of her marriage. This emotional roller coaster had me totally captured.
The film selects stories from the Ramayana to tell the story of Sita through three narrators, depicted as shadow puppets, who discuss their versions and understandings of the Ramayana, really highlighting its status as folk tale and fable rather than a strict body of work.
The back-and-forth narrative style reminded me so strongly of listening to my ex-boyfriend’s Italian grandparents trying to tell a story about things from decades past – building on each other, correcting each other, sharing the same event or interaction from their different perspectives. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that this was totally organic! Paley recounts how each of her three narrators met each other for the first time that day, and their conversation was totally unscripted.
In the film, Sita is a powerful goddess, daughter of the Earth, and Paley tells the story of this strong woman being governed by the desires and decisions of other men. Paley explains on the film’s website that this felt reflective of her own decision to follow her husband to try save their marriage. For me as a feminist, my reading of this part of the story line was of a literal goddess whose faith and love for her husband was both empowering and constraining.
In fact, this film perked my feminist antenna a few times. When Sita is captured and held prisoner, her captor doesn’t touch her. When Rama rescues her, this is of the utmost importance to him, that her purity and virtue be unspoiled. In many Western cultures, these same values ring true – a woman’s worth is perceived to be decided by her virginity and modesty. From my understanding, this has strong roots in Christianity. This led me to wonder what the roots are in Indian and Hindu cultures.
Moreover, what led to these ideas of women’s value and the emphasis on sexual modesty being so universal, so wide-spread? A question that large is most definitely for another time and another body of research, but a small investigation shows that Hindu culture places a strong emphasis on women’s purity and virginity before marriage, and the idea of ‘purdah’, which “reveals itself in civil behaviour, modest dressing and appropriate behaviour towards men” (Rashid & Michaud 2000, p 56).
This question is something that occurs to me and bothers me frequently – am I guilty of moral imperialism? Of cultural appropriation at times? Of judging cultures based on my cultural learnings? Well, firstly, it’s important to admit that it’d be basically impossible not to factor in my beliefs and values when I view something. I can’t switch it off – I’m not a robot, and autoethnography doesn’t require me to be. I’d like to believe my consciousness of these biases and impacts of such counts for something. But to respond to my own questions and worries, I find some comfort in Paley’s description of “the wondrous complexities of racial relations”, with which she dismisses those who view everything as inherently racist.
Rama’s perception of Sita’s virtue and faithfulness would be the downfall of both of them, with Rama casting out his loving wife and unborn children, despite all her attempts to prove herself.
No matter how hard she tried, he kept treating her like dirt. Sound familiar, ladies?
Paley saw the failure of her own marriage in Sita, and the universality of failed relationships in Sita’s struggle. I was reminded of my own past relationships, and felt such strong reactions to both Paley’s and Sita’s heartbreak in the film.
Paley uses ancient stories, old music, and modern animation to tell a timeless and universal story of love and heartbreak- “really show(s) how the story of heartbreak in the Ramayana transcends time and culture.” Despite my being unfamiliar with the Ramayana or Hinduism in any meaningful sense, I was transported by this film. I loved the bright colours and large choreographed scenes, reminiscent of Bollywood, and I felt a strong emotional connection to the two main women. Sita Sings is such an excellent example of communication and sharing across cultures.
Watch Sita Sings the Blues here.
Rashid, S & Michaud, S 2000, Female Adolescents and Their Sexuality: Notions of Honour, Shame, Purity and Pollution during the Floods, Disasters, vol 29, no. 1, pp 54-70