By Samira Bose
Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist
My eyes seemed to dance as I watched ‘Sita Sings The Blues’ (2008) in a dark room. Annette Hanshaw’s jazz numbers mingled both fluidly and starkly with the vivid graphic images that lit up the screen. My laughter would ring across the hall consistently, and the commentary in the film could easily be part of my living room banter. Every minute of the movie is reflective of intensive research, and careful consideration also reveals a perspective that is not as popular i.e. Sita’s side of Valmiki’s grand epic Ramayana. However, idle musing about the film caused a certain amount of deliberation on a larger viewpoint which perhaps requires re-examination.
American animation artist, Nina Paley adopts unique methods of depiction of a tale that whispers multitudinously through much of the Indian sub-continent. A part of her narrative is strongly inspired by the 18th century style of Rajput painting, and another part uses the traditional art of Indian puppets as part of her commentary. Both of these are impeccably done, and speak of concentration on detail. The sounds and musical compositions use traditional Indian elements as well as western music, and this aids in the exploration of the duality in this vibrant version of the story.
This duality is especially stark when one part of the narrative is an autobiographical aspect of the animator’s life. It is relatively unadorned, and it appears that the intention is to show the minimalist urban reality of relationships in the present. India’s imagined past is thus festooned, while the story of a modern heart-break of a woman by a man is painted in dull colours. The pain of Nina via the callous treatment by her lover is stark and affecting, however I am ambiguous about the comparison to Ram’s treatment of Sita.
In Nina’s story, we are not shown her lover’s side at all yet we understand that there was an insensitive rejection on his part. In the depiction of Sita’s story, we do get to see Ram’s side to an extent but his behaviour is attributed more to a kind of brawn idiocy rather than larger societal implications. Throughout the story, Sita is utterly virtuous and devoted to him, yet his love for her appears to be initially lustful infatuation which transforms into a disdain as she’ had spent time in another’s male’s home’. In fact, Ram is shown to literally kick Sita and walk over her pregnant body as well as ignore her constantly flowing pearly tears.
The problematic aspect of showing Ram in this light is not related to religious reverence nor a nationalist protection of tradition. The concern that I had was that somewhere Ram was also a victim of circumstance and societal pressure (as are a lot of people). In no way am I defending Ram, in fact there are rather infuriating aspects in his almost one-dimensional, ‘moral’ character. The problem in the parallel narratives lies in the portrayal of men as solely unfeeling beings that walk-over the faithful women. Since the treatment of Nina is her viewpoint, an audience can still be assuaged about the limited representation. However, Sita is an archetype, and her story requires a more complex examination of factors that were possibly unrelated to purely Ram’s personality, as much as he is personally at fault for abandonment.
In the most popular rendition of Ramayana, Ram leaves Sita because he hears a washer-man abusing his wife for adultery and drawing a parallel to Sita. Ram is influenced and banishes Sita because as a King, he has a duty to his subjects and could not be viewed as one who is weak or morally tainted. True, Ram could have prioritized differently and catered first to his love for Sita and I personally was always indignant by his decision. The shadow puppets (possibly the most appealing part of the movie) in their modern day, deliberately pseudo-intellectual analysis do mention that Ram catered to his duty as a King, however, not much is said about the distress that he might have felt about a decision that was driven to a large extent by societal pressure.
As much as women are subject to subjugation by social constructs, a lot of men too are forced to suppress emotions because it is expected of them by society. The most appealing Ram would of course be one that rebels all such constructs, but we realize that the weakness in his character is not necessarily macho insensitivity but rather the disability to break social norms. In this aspect, Ram’s character was oversimplified in the film. With sexuality as a rainbow spectrum, a gendered view of this ‘hero’ is thus tricky, and perhaps an aspect that could be explored more.
Sita’s character is narrow as well in the sense that she is purely a beautiful and loyal wife throughout the movie. It would have been interesting to have more relatable aspects to Sita, since mocking her dedication is somewhere similar to the blind reverence of Ram. This too concentrates purely on the defects in Sita’s personality rather than the larger societal implications of her actions. Nina Paley in her exploration of Chandrabati’s Ramayana (which also explores Sita’s perspective) does mention how Sita is playful and charming. Such an aspect to Sita in this film would have made her more appealing rather than her being purely pitiful and pathetic (except at the end where she is absorbed by Mother Earth).
Human relationships have more to them than purely emotions and personality defects and there are myriad factors and social constructs that come into play in this phenomena. This is something which critics, academics and ‘story-re-tellers’ should mull over. This being said, ‘Sita Sings The Blues’ is exceptional, bold and a must-watch. Nina Paley is gifted as a story-teller, and provides a feminist view-point of the epic that must be lauded. The fact that she bravely believes in ‘Free Culture’ and completely free distribution of the movie is praise-worthy as well. The biting charm of the movie along with its psychedelic as well as subtle graphics are rapturing, and one cannot but help but think and re-think for hours after this visual feast.
Samira Bose is a student of History and Mystery. She questions incessantly, revels in the rain and listens to the breeze. She yearns for clarity but at the same time seeks confusion and she wants her life to be analogous to the sea. She wants to become many people and wishes to be overwhelmed by experience. Most importantly, she hopes to become a story-teller. Tell her your thoughts and stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.