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