The Ramayana and the old-style blues. - Slightly expurgated, occasionally bowdlerized
Apr. 26th, 2008
04:07 pm - The Ramayana and the old-style blues.
We got to go see Sita Sings the Blues last night. It was at least its New York debut, if not its world debut, I think, and it was showing as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. My fiancé's mother got us tickets!, as only AmEx card holders could buy tickets for the first week of sales. A wonderful birthday present!
A friend of mine pointed me to this movie and I think it was because of the art, which is incredibly detailed and gorgeous. (She herself is an artist and known for her incredibly detailed, gorgeous work.) As a feat of animation it's insanely impressive. Almost all of it was done in Flash, including hand-traced rotoscoping of a classical Indian dance sequence, and the richness and variety of the animation styles make it a tour de force of art no matter what else one could say about it.
But there's actually a lot to say about it. It's not just design styles, but storytelling traditions and cultural histories that are blending here. Nina Paley, the creator, has told a story mirroring an experience in her life in which her husband leaves her for a tech job in India, then dumps her via email, with the experiences of Sita in the Ramayana, in which Sita's husband leaves her to capture a golden deer, and ultimately banishes her from his kingdom and his life. The experiences of the two women resonate with one another and as inevitable in such cases, they illuminate each other and say more about each other than each could say alone.
After the showing there was Q&A with Nina and the other actors, dancer, musicians, and supporters involved in making the film. The audience asked the predictable first questions you would have time for in half an hour right after a movie has shown. They were captivated by the combination of East and West in the movie, captivated by the rich multi-leveled presentation of the story of the Ramayana, which is told and re-told by many voices including a chorus of shadow puppets and Mughal-style art cutouts as well as Paley's own animation creations. They were interested, as voyeuristic audiences often are, in her inspirations and her work process. (The effects she achieved were simply stupendous.) The music got less attention than it deserved, as it's fantastic. It's clear that this group of artists isn't market-oriented, because the idea of making a distributable version of the music (at least sales online through something like cdbaby.com) should have occurred to them ages ago. There were certainly questions about when the music, and the movie, might be available in other formats. (Answer: don't know yet.)
The longest answer was about the reception the movie has gotten in some areas from Indians (or perhaps more specifically Hindus) who find it objectionable. I find it personally discouraging that in this day and age an artist can still receive rape threats in response to a work as beautiful and heartfelt as this one, and Nina Paley both reported those threats and refused to let them discourage her in a way that was simple and quietly courageous. She has no choice, of course but to stand by her work. She is still hoping that the film will be shown in India and sees a positive reception for it here in America as a first step. I'm sure the film will get a reception as positive as its audience is wide, because I can't imagine anyone seeing this film and not being impressed by it, at least by the accomplishment of its art.
But it really rewards further investigation, and as soon as I was done clapping I immediately thought to myself "I must find a way to show this in the class I'm going to teach next year." That class will be on global storytelling and global markets for storytelling, particularly in new media, and I really can't think of a better framing text than this one.
The movie itself is a triumph of individual creation. Paley literally hand-created almost every frame, using technology that is very widely available. I can easily see it taking one of several routes - being distributed online (which would probably net her the most money, if she can sell enough copies to non-pirates), or being picked up by one of the larger distributers like Searchlight. I don't see that happening, because the movie isn't the sort of simple feel-good story that generally does well in those markets (it's nothing like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" - in fact one might call it the polar opposite), but it could certainly garner a big cult following and would work as well on big screens in theaters as the trailer does on laptop screens.
In addition to that, though, the movie is a demonstration of how one white Western woman connected with not only the sacred story of Sita but also with a dimpled jazz singer of the last century. There are really three women who are telling one another's stories here: Paley, Sita, and Hanshaw. Because the wavery sweet voice of the jazz singer, when put into Sita's mouth, makes Sita's pain emotional and recognizable and also in a way survivable. Sita can't help loving her man; in fact her life reflects that love is a mitzvah, a holy blessing, one she has the power to give and she does give it, freely, wholly. Christians might easily see in her selfless unconditional love a reflection of the love of a Protestant Jesus, for instance. It could be argued that only a deity actually does give that sort of bottomless unquestioning love - except that in Paley's movie we see that women give that sort of love too.
And we see the downsides of that sort of all-encompassing unconditional love. Certainly if one looks at it from the point of view of a twenty-first-century woman, a product of the post-Freudian era, the destructiveness of love is immediately evident. Hanshaw's songs tell about a woman who does not stand proudly independent and alone without her man - she clings to him, adores him, and definitely is not fulfilled without him. Sita's voice and Sita's eyes and Sita's hands and Sita's actions all embody the same devotion. It is not good for Sita - it isn't good for Rama either; perhaps it isn't good for anyone. But it is, and that wholehearted love lets the Nina character in the movie feel her own wholehearted love. It might not be healthy and it certainly isn't proud, but it is, and because it is a part of her, she can feel it and, in a sense, there are hints, move on. Paradoxically, by acknowledging the one-sided, damaged and damaging, all-encompassing love, Paley's characters somehow integrate it into their larger selves and become in their own ways whole.
The movie is what I would consider one of the best examples of inter-cultural mingling: one that does not deny the differences in cultures, traditions, language (Sita is always Sita, and the Ramayana is her story, and the shadow puppets working to remember it through the various versions they know from picture books and television and textbooks are inhabiting their own culture and it will feel alien, I think, more than co-opted, for the conscious viewer), while at the same time making connections between human stories that really do have connections. A woman's broken heart, while culturally specific, has similarities to other women's broken hearts, and those similarities can cross boundaries of time and space.
In a way, then, if the movie glorifies anything, it glorifies the unfortunate omnipresence of women's broken hearts. Paley's hopeful, optimistic treatment of such a sad theme makes it somehow positive, more positive than any images in the closing of the movie itself. It is precisely because Paley's work demonstrates the universality of her experience that we can feel hopeful about heartbreak.
Having seen "Sita Sings the Blues", yes, I want to read the Valmiki Ramayana, and yes, I also want to go back in time and give Annette Hanshaw some solid feminist advice about getting by on your own (and maybe a few new songs to sing). But I also feel closer to Paley, and Hanshaw, and I feel closer to Sita. And that's a good thing.