The history of womankind is a broken record as the same damn things keeping happening over and over again. At least that seems to be a major theme in Sita Sings the Blues, an incomparably unique animated feature that combines ancient Hindu mythology, a 1920s blues singer, and one artist’s failed marriage to tell the story of a every woman who lets a man walk all over her.
This is a true labor of love, rendered mostly in Adobe Flash, by the artist and cartoonist Nina Paley. Paley has made the complete feature available for free under a Creative Commons license. Now that the music rights have cleared for Annette Hanshaw’s soundtrack the film is also available on DVD and if you like what you see there’s merchandise for sale so appreciative audiences can support the artist.
The story unfolds in multiple layers, each taking place at divergent moments in history and represented with its own animated style. We begin in present-day San Francisco, portrayed here in squigglevision, with the couple, Nina and Dave, in domestic bliss. Dave’s sudden departure for a new job in India foreshadows the impending end of their relationship. Paley juxtaposes this with the epic myth of Sita and Rama, presented as gouache paintings come alive. Interrupting or narrating the story is a third form, a trio of shadow puppets commenting on the myth. These characters exist out of time. Finally the signature sequences are done with computer animation as a cartoonish Rama and Sita act out their story with Sita singing the words of Annete Hanshaw’s blues. Although visually set in the myth the audience is experiencing creative expressions from the early twentieth century America and encouraged to note the similarities between the two.
“I never knew how good it was to be a slave to one who means the world to me,” she sings.
We learn from the mythic segments that Rama is noble and good, the embodiement of righteousness. The ideal man. The shadow puppets explain to us that Rama’s father, Dasharatha, had planned on crowning him king until one of his scheming wives, Keikeyi, invokes an old debt to force him to banish Rama to the forest instead. Sita, his devoted and beautiful wife follows him. Meanwhile the evil king of Lanka, Ravana, is persuaded by his sister, Suruphanaka, to steal Sita away.
Even with her husband gone Ravana cannot violate Sita’s chastity. Later, aided by his half monkey sidekick Hanuman, Rama finally discovers Ravana’s castle, slaughters his demons and wins Sita back. However Sita has now lived in another man’s house and Rama, having avenged the insult of having his wife stolen, no longer desires her. She must prove her purity to him first in a trial by fire, but before the pyre can harm her gods descend and spirit her away.
With her purity beyond dispute Rama returns to his kingdom to accept his rightful position as king. Then in a chance encounter, Rama observes one of his subjects, a laundryman beating his unfaithful wife. He scolds her: “Do you think I am like Rama?” Now the king feels his wife’s reputation is costing him the loyalty of his subjects, so he banishes her even while she is pregnant with his sons.
Back in the real world Nina follows Dave to India, but the passion of their romance is gone. When she receives an invitation to attend a conference in New York City Dave dumps her by email. In an utterly humiliating scene Nina tearfully begs Dave to take her back when obvious he’s the one doing her wrong.
As Wynton Marsalis describes it, the blues is down home sophistication and it shows in Hanshaw’s numbers. This is a truly adult musical form. “What wouldn’t I do for that man,” she croons as the cartoon Rama literally walks on Sita or sits on her back to drink tea so devoted she is to him. While held captive by Ravana she sings, “Daddy won’t you please come home.” And when Rama rejects Sita after the rescue its, “You love to see me cryin’. I’m left alone singing the blues and sighin’.”
Annette Hanshaw in her vocal performances is really like another character in the story, one which shares with Sita certain idealized qualities of womanhood – a point hammered home by the Betty Boop like proportions of Sita the blues singer with huge bosoms, a tiny waist, and flirty eyelashes. They are both women who define themselves through their romantic relationships with men, in particular men who are blameless. Through all the hardships Rama puts Sita through her devotion to him remains unwavering just as the woman portrayed by Hanshaw’s lyrics continues to love her man no matter how mean he might treat her. Paley clearly identifies with both of these characters. Even as Dave treats her like dirt, she can’t bare to let him go. “Am I blue? You’d be too.”
It is only through the shadow puppets that Paley can bring herself to criticize her own behavior. These characters are really my favorite part of the movie. Depicted in royal or mythological garb the shadow puppets are voiced to sound like modern South Asian Americans and they comment on the myth of Rama and Sita from an alienated, “born confused” perspective. Throughout the feature they interrupt the proceedings to explain the myth but just as often they bicker among themselves, offer competing versions of the story, screw up, questioning the characters’ motivations and cracking jokes at the authority of myths and the powers they hold over our lives.
Late in the movie, Nina calls Dave to beg him, “Please take me back.” This time the puppets stop the action in the modern world outside of mythic time. They explain how as unfair as it might seem that Rama is remembered as a benevolent king while he treats Sita so badly it cannot be that Sita is without fault. After all she’s the one who keeps putting up with his behavior. They make her unquestioning devotion, a virtue under patriarchy, into a character flaw. “Listen he doesn’t like you! You’ve got to move on. C’mon!” That’s her mistake. You shouldn’t love someone who treats you so badly. As Hanshaw sings, “Love had its day. That day has passed. You’ve gone away,” Sita the cartoon character literally cries a river.
Sita Sings the Blues makes clever use of irony, crossing over between multiple timelines to give us a portrait of women – across cultures and through time – being mistreated by men and not having the sense to do anything but put up with it. While the patriarchy of ancient Hindu myth may be readily apparent to us and their congruence with early American popular culture unsettling, Paley urges women to be cognizant of its unconscious internalization. Our romantic proclivities are part of tacit culture.
In the fairy tales we all know so well and which Disney re-presents for our children time and again the man comes to the rescue of the fair maidens whose only aspirations, like Sita, is to be the perfect mother and wife. Such stories contribute to our socialization and enculturation, reflecting the values of the societies that reproduce and repeat them like a broken record playing the blues. This time around, Paley seems to be saying, women need to save themselves.