May 02, 2010
"Sita Sings the Blues" - A Storm (if even), in a Teacup?
"Horrible depiction of the most revered scripture of ancient India. Nina Paley has no rights to compare herself with Sita." (Reel 13)
Nina Paley's animation film "Sita Sings the Blues", released this month, was recommended by a friend who normally refrains from giving recommendations, and so I had to see this one.
As we all know by now, religion and the rendition of it in any artistic genre, comes under immediate and intense scrutiny. The Danish cartoons on Muhammad, M.F. Husein's paintings of Hindu gods, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, or the most recent controversy about a "South Park" episode on Comedy Central, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone; all of these have received unprecedented coverage in the press, worldwide. No surprise then that Ms. Paley has been receiving hate mail after 'Sita Sang Her Blues' in the voice of a 1920 jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw. Moreover 'Sita', the much worshiped epitome of Indian womanhood, has a"Betty Boop Goes Hollywood' appearance in the film as she croons and swoons to the fickleness of love and lovers; a far cry from the sari clad traditional image of Sita in Hindu mythology.
Ms. Paley had several things going on simultaneously in the film besides the plot line of the Indian epic, The Ramayana. She inter-twined the story of Sita with the story of her own heart break in marriage, all within an 80 minute movie. Clearly, this was taking a monumental risk given our current day religiously sensitive audiences. Ms. Paley was obviously willing to take that risk and more because she introduced yet another controversial feature in this film; she had three commentators with pronounced Indian accents interpreting events in the Ramayana, and they did it with obvious uncertainty like that of second generation Indians living in the US. Those comments are made in a lighter tone like the one used among close friends, but to an avid Hindu they could easily sound blasphemous. Nothing the three say is really new or essential and yet Ms. Paley chose to have them in the film. The movie was certainly not ground breaking, in fact quite ordinary as far as the storyline was concerned; a lack-luster retelling of an ancient epic. Hanshaw's jazz vocals were perhaps the saving grace. Luckily for the movie maker, the Western audience, seeing an Indian Epic in animation mode, may perhaps be intrigued and then impressed by what Ms. Paley created because, “We see so many films, and when you come across one like this, you just feel like you’ve stumbled upon a gem.” (Alison Dickey, a film producer and one of the jurors at Spirit Awards).
I don't think I would recommend the movie though"Sita Sings the Blues" has definitely generated immense interest among staunch Hindus as also with Hindu bloggers who feel affronted by Ms. Paley's blasphemous presentation of 'their gods'. Consequently the movie will draw an audience, recover its making cost, and the artist Ms. Paley will not be faced with penury for having ventured into new grounds. No artist deserves that fate; certainly not Nina Paley, a respected comic strip writer.