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Without You, I’m No Thing

Sita Sings the Blues, Dir. Nina Paley, Now Streaming at Reel 13

What burns in the heart of a woman? Interviewed by the Rail about her film Sita Sings the Blues, an update on Valmiki’s traditional Indian epic the Ramayana, Nina Paley answers, “Feelings, man. They burn your ass.” Joy? Paley’s protagonist Sita’s got it. Pain? She suffers, big time. World-weariness? None. Not at first, anyway.

Because Sita’s in love, unconditional love. She’s got it bad, smitten with Rama, a buff, blue boy toy with a perfect jaw and shoulders broad as a sequoia. Burning love, the love that bears all things, believeth all things, endureth all things. Her love for Rama tells a Hindu tale with a Christian ethic: love never faileth. (Exthept when it dotheth.) Because, as Paley points out in conversation, “Neither men nor women” can ignore those blazing emotions; “you can’t turn your back on even a little fire, or it’ll burn your house down.”

It's a hunka-hunka burning love.
It's a hunka-hunka burning love.

In contrast to practically any other award-winning animated feature (Special Mention at Berlinale, Best Feature at Annecy, Grand Prize at Montreal, among others), Paley made Sita Sings the Blues in a home office with only a handful of other artists, among them Reena Shah, who voices Sita and dances in Rotoscope (as in the still, top right).

An incendiary labor of love, the story of Sita’s production is inextricable from the story it tells. You see, Nina Paley is a character in her own film, and like Sita exiled by her husband Rama, Nina (and director Paley) was abandoned by her husband. From India. By email.

Out of the ashes of her loss, Paley, and her characters Nina and Sita, have risen like a collective phoenix, bearing art. From the forges of love’s Haephestian depths, Paley has beaten this picture out of her own molten flesh: living on couches, trading favors, begging and borrowing for every frame.

The opening images impart an important story, because neither Paley nor any corporation owns this film. Your Name Here presents Sita in association with Your Money, a Funded by You production which Paley has published on the web. It aired on PBS early this year and remains on the festival circuit, but Reel 13 offers it streaming or via hi-res download in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. The arrangement suits the film in part because Paley ran into trouble with copyright issues on some of the songs, and in part because she believes in art as accessible as Gnu/Linux.

With songs by 1920s jazz star Annette Hanshaw and an irrepressible score by Todd Michaelsen, Masala Dosa and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Sita fireworks a bravura display of animation styles. There’s Flash for Sita’s music videos via Hanshaw, wavy cartoon for the Nina story, Mughal painting-inspired images for the traditional portions of the Ramayana, plus a set of three shadow puppets enact a comic chorus, gossiping about the main characters, illustrating mythic riffs against zany, Gilliamesque cutouts. And in a nod to Bollywood, Paley includes a hand-Rotoscoped music video of flaming dancers.

The film blazes with banishment and abandonment, kidnapping, domestic violence, rape, punishment, war, relentless tests of purity, and making babies—in short, marriage. In the first scene, Hanshaw’s incandescent flapper voice recalls a long history of abused female artists:

My sweet man I love him so
Though he’s mean as can be
He’s the kind of man needs
A woman like me*

The astute will observe that an abusive man like Rama needs a woman “like me,” but not “me” or even us females, exactly. In fact, Rama’s most satisfactory relationship endures with Hanuman, his faithful, even servile manservant and as the wags say, “constant companion.”

Exiled to a green forest idyll over a trifling palace intrigue, the gods Sita and Rama romp happily until the lustful Ravana kidnaps Sita for her beauty. Rama shoots Ravana’s bestial army with his arrows, and in a scene worthy of Esther Williams, musical comedy fountains of blood spray and dance in blithe foreshadowing of the sacrifices his cupidity will demand.

Sita remains faithful to Rama in captivity, and eventually Hanuman finds her and brings her words back to him, trailing a tail afire that makes an Art Deco Inferno of Ravana’s city. Rama recaptures Sita, subjects her to a trial by fire to test her purity, takes her back, impregnates her with twins—only to exile her again in a fit of impotent, jealous rage. Over nothing.

In Brooklyn, post-email, Nina calls her ex begging and screaming to be taken back, just as Sita in exile prays for her husband to relent. Typically, the abandoned women blame themselves. They too “are forgetting that they are goddesses here,” says Paley, “I wanted to scream,” at the characters, “No! No! Don’t you know who you are? You’re a goddess!” “But” says Paley, “Sita doesn’t know that.” 

Naturally, all love eventuates betrayal, abandonment, abuse, or neglect; “there is no perfect partner, not even among gods,” Paley reminds the Rail, “because they forget that they are gods.”

Married women in the audience will recognize the cleverness of Sita’s next move. She labors and births her twin sons alone in the forest, then all day has them sing songs praising Rama. Like all us narcissists, Rama can hear nothing but his own perfection and bestows his attention only on its innocent parrots, like the Greek-tricky-slave-meets-commedia-dellarte-buffoon Hanuman, whose love dare not speak its name. Sita’s ploy pays off when, hunting in the forest, Rama overhears his boys’ song and returns them to his graces—and his castle.

Unlike her sons, Sita must undergo yet another trial to prove her enduring purity to Rama, and her surprise choice thunders a warning to women, artists, and lovers alike: Don’t you know who you are?

In this film, women only see God when they’re risking it all. Fortunately audiences draw a life lesson from Valmiki’s tale (a cautionary one, but we must remember, written by a man in a caste society), and from Paley’s artistry (the transformative). Speaking of Sita’s ultimate scene, Paley says, “When I animated that, I was killing my inner Sita, killing her in effigy. Right before Sita dies, she detaches, and in that moment, she moves from woman to goddess.”

Everybody's got something to hide, except for me and my monkey. © Courtesy
Everybody's got something to hide, except for me and my monkey. © Courtesy

By fashioning Sita as a superflat, Erté-meets-Murakami take on Betty Boop, then splashing her tale in brilliant color across every comedy trope from the Colloseum to the Catskills, Paley and her audience alike attain the detachment to view love’s ups and downs from a distance, and transcend through laughter.

“I had to make a feature film about it in order to detach from that pain of my breakup. I had to find something for the fire to fuel. I had to make the film for the fire not to burn me up,” says Paley.

In Sita, Paley reclaims herself through multivarious splitting and projective identification: Nina becomes object and subject. She makes her Sita nature an object objectified four, five, six different ways, telescoping-away from her pain via illusion, repetitive reenactment, stylistic flourish—she even interrupts her own action via a timed intermission, counting down the seconds like a calming breath—but with plenty of distancing slurpy noises, crowd wallah and popping popcorn, too.

This is just a cartoon! Her film giggles just soft enough to delight and just hard enough to say Look, see: it’s not a sacrificial tragedy, it’s musical comedy. The bestial armies dance Busby Berkeley. The id monsters slaughter, but Broadway-style. And I’m not a madwoman, I’m just a mad woman. Paley splinters her pain into mulitple Sitas, Ninas and stand-ins, then crushes the agony of rebirth into the labor of making paint. Her pain has been Hammerstein’d and Sondheim’d, it’s been Hair’d, it’s even been Casablanca’d (as a tropical jazz band of six Hanumans tickle the ivories and lean back like Dooley Wilson). But it’s still pain.

*Lyrics from “Moanin’ Low” by Ralph Rainger & Howard Dietz, © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.


Lisa Moricoli-Latham

Lisa Moricoli-Latham writes "The Naughty Bride's Secret Guide", a blog of matrimonial humor.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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