Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya, Reena Shah, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Pooja Kumar, Debargo Sanyal, Aladdin Ullah, Nitya Vidyasagar, Nina Paley, Deepti Gupta
Written by: Nina Paley
Directed by: Nina Paley
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 82
Date: 02/11/2008

Sita Sings the Blues (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Ramayana Nirvana

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If animated features looked like they were hitting a wall recently, with too many of the same formula gestures and an over-reliance on CGI and kids' programming, Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues steps in to shame them all. It's a staggeringly brilliant, astonishingly imaginative feature debut from a cartoonist ("Nina's Adventures") turned filmmaker. Billed as "the greatest breakup story ever told," the film is based on the Ramayana, and tells the tale of Sita, who falls in love with Rama just before he is banished from his kingdom for 14 years. They live happily in exile until Sita is kidnapped by an evil, multi-headed king. Rama rescues her with the help of a monkey-man, but he can no longer be sure of her "purity." Paley presents this story in several ways, with several different art styles. In one, Sita "sings the blues," or rather lip-syncs to recordings by jazz singer Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985); the songs ("Mean to Me," "Lover Come Back to Me," etc.) go remarkably well with material that occurred centuries before Hanshaw's time. Sometimes, three Indian Ramayana scholars turn up (in animated, silhouette form) and debate some of the inconsistencies in the story. We even get a fun little "intermission." Finally, we get a modern story in which Nina's beloved boyfriend gets a job in India and she suffers a painful and prolonged breakup of her own, followed by her own Sita-like rebirth in which she discovers the Ramayana for herself.

If Disney had told the story, it would have been a literal, straight-ahead adaptation, perhaps tweaked for a happy ending and consumption by children, with some talking animal supporting characters and a new soundtrack of songs (and surely it would have been made in 3D CGI). Paley's boundless imagination won't let her take the story at its face value, and includes all her own questions and suspicions. It's an intellectual deconstruction of narrative to get at the emotional content beneath. The modern-day story is Paley's way of making the story personal, since what's the point of telling a story if it's not about yourself? And the Hanshaw songs are, I believe, Paley's way of linking the ancient story with the modern world, with a connective stopover in the early 20th century. Love and the act of breaking up caused just as much pain centuries ago as it does today. Lastly, I can only breathlessly describe the truly dazzling look of the film, with Fantasia-like interludes and a breathtaking use of color. You can almost smell the air in this film, unlike many animated features that are created in a vacuum. Sita Sings the Blues is fully deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, though I wouldn't bet on that actually happening.

Paley has created a very informative website full of information, including an explanation of the complex copyright issues surrounding the film and its music, and how to see it. It's currently showing at a few theaters around the country, including the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco, May 8-12. Also, you can stream or download the movie, and DVDs will be available soon. Any way you can get it, don't miss this!

[Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I knew Nina pretty well back in the 1990s when she lived in San Francisco. Though we haven't spoken much in the past decade, I recently found her again on facebook. As always, I have tried to look at the film objectively, and I believe I have succeeded. I would recommend Sita Sings the Blues just as highly even if I had never met its maker.]

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