Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

A Story told in Pictures

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 11, 2009

I watched Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues around an hour ago, and I thought of a great way to write about this film: just show lots of screenshots, and add a minimum amount of commenting from below. Ought to be enough, right? Obviously, I refuse to do that because the thing I liked best about it was being continuously surprised visually. In fact, I’m going to go the exact opposite way, by showing only one or two screenshots.

The closest parallel I can think of to this movie is Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, which used Beatles songs to talk about a love story. Sita Sings the Blues uses Annette Hanshaw’s Blues music to tell the Ramayana and Nina Paley’s ‘similar’ – I’ll come back to this later – story . The two major differences between the two are that the latter is animated, and while the latter merely uses the music the former exists solely for it. The major difference I felt, however, was that, for me, the former worked as a movie. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed this movie. Never in its eighty or so minutes did I feel like looking away. It’s just that there were characters on the screen, and I didn’t feel anything of what they felt.

The importance of this fact, however, is rapidly dwindling with time. Why? Simple; because watching this movie was an experience that was worth not thinking much of it as a movie. Would I have been happier, more involved, if I cared for the storyline? Yes, very much. Do I hate this movie because I didn’t care for the people in it? Nah, I’m too young for that.

Before I go to the most important part of this review, let me talk about the ‘similarities’ that Miss Paley found. They do exist; there’s no denying that. A warning, however, to people who have never read the Ramayana: the story is twisted almost completely out of shape. It’s like this, you see: people will see what they want to. (This is just a warning to a reader who hasn’t read the Ramayana, not a complaint against the movie.)

Now, after having not talked about the visual style of this movie for way too long, let me talk about it. Actually, I can’t. You see, its visual style is intrinsically connected to the storytelling style as well as the background score, so I’ll try and talk about all three together (though I probably won’t be able to). The movie has, basically, four distinct styles, which I will call modern-day, talking-myth, sita-singing-the-blues and free-for-all.

Modern-day is very rudimentary, really. It’s just meant to fill us up on Miss Paley’s life, and how she got the inspiration to make this movie. The most interesting thing about it is how the image keeps on shifting; unlike our normal expectation from cartoons, which is a naturalistic movement, this was just hastily hand-drawn, so that one frame is not the result of a naturalistic movement from the last but a very noticeable shift. I say it is hastily hand-drawn, but I have to point out that this shift dies down when called for, which is just a tribute to Miss Paley’s (all other ways to refer to her seem wrong) skills as an animator. So, why was it done this way? To provide some relief from the attack on our senses that is the rest of the movie, is my guess, and because the world the target audience is familiar with doesn’t need to be filled in. Anyway, here’s a screenshot from this style:

Screenshot in 'modern-day' style

Look at the subject line

There’s the talking-myth style which is used when the characters from the Ramayana are talking, in prose. It is a clever amalgamation of the Madhubani style of painting, Indian Shadow puppetry and more Mughal-influenced renditions, and these are just the ones I picked up. I congratulate Miss Paley in knowing more about Indian art forms than almost the whole of India. I refuse to show screenshots of this as it is so mindlessly inventive that can’t think of a suitably dull moment.

Then there’s the sita-sings-the-blues. This is what has received most attention, and, you know, it stars Annette Hanshaw, singing the blues. Now, this part really irked me; why is it that, no matter what, Sita looks happy? It is monstrously irritating.

Screenshot of 'sits-sings-the-blues' style

Give us this day our daily popcorn

Free-for-all, my favourite. This is the dullest bit I could think of.

Screenshot from 'free-for-all' style

Her beginning is where I end


7 Responses to “A Story told in Pictures”

  1. S M Rana said

    I saw it some time ago and really loved it, controversies apart. The art of the mythology part is psychedelic and of the modern part beautifully contrasting. The format for narration and plot exposition is also novel and effective. Even though there may be departures from the standard interpretation, it imparts rich emotional depth to the scripture.

  2. I plan on seeing it again over the weekend, so I’ll leave my comments then. But, as for Nina Paley’s view of the Ramayana, she has this to say about her use of it in the film: “I didn’t set out to tell THE Ramayana, only MY Ramayana. I wanted to be very clear about my point of view, my biases.” (

    I think that’s kind of the point of her movie, too: culture belongs to all of us, so the reason she can retell the Ramayana in her own way is the same reason that T.H. White could retell the legend of King Arthur in his own way and the same reason that Jean Rhys could rewrite Jane Eyre in her own way: because these are our stories, too, and how they speak to us are as much a part of their makeup as their actual words are.

  3. I’m sorry I said this wrong (and thanks, both SM and Literary Dreamer for pointing it out): I was just warning anyone who might stumble on this review and hasn’t read the Ramayana. Roger Ebert, for example, seemed to end up thinking it was the story of Sita.

  4. Okay, now that I’ve seen the movie again, my reaction:

    I would argue that the movie may not seem to work well as a movie because it appears to be separated into different “set pieces,” so that we are watching different characters in each piece, which are: Nina’s story, the commentary on the Ramayana, a few “out there scenes” (like the one that begins the title sequence), scenes from the Ramayana (using art techniques that reminds one very much of Indian art), and scenes where Sita sings. At least, that’s how it seems when one begins to watch this movie. Then something strange happens: all those different elements start to gel more and more as the movie progresses, and some parts even cross over into other scenes (like the shadow puppets, who have been commenting on the Ramayana, begin commenting on Nina’s story). And that’s when we realize what the point of this movie is: it’s the same story. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy treats girl badly. Girl remains devoted to boy. And it’s the same across the ages, whether it’s the Ramayana (or the part that Nina Paley chooses to represent), the songs of Annette Henshaw, or Nina’s personal life story.
    And I would argue that, by the end of the movie, our emotions have been touched and played with, but not so much through the plight of the characters (though we can empathize with them). Instead, the imagery and the music supplies the emotional “heft” of the film. The story is a universal one. The genius is in its presentation.

  5. Honestly, I wouldn’t know. It’s just that I, personally, didn’t feel anything – except exhilaration – during the movie. Next time I watch it (and there will be one) I’ll keep what you say in mind.
    Thanks for the new perspective.

  6. I watched it again today, and I felt the same apathy at the same points.
    BUT: I realised that there was another way it could work as a movie. I’m not completely sure what that way is, but I enjoyed it as a movie, even though I felt nothing for any of the characters.

    This time, some of the set-pieces affected me a lot more, like the opening of the Earth and the song of the praises of Rama (the omittance of which in the original review there is no redeeming excuse for):

    Sing his love, sing his praise,
    Rama set his wife ablaze.

    (My parents tell me that this is a famous Bollywood tune, which might explain why I’m so affected by it, and the memory of it.)

  7. OMG enjoyed reading your blogpost. I submitted your rss to my reader.

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