Sita Sings the Blues

There are many reasons why people see the films that they do. Story. Stars. Genre. Source material. Curiosity about how a film was made. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues highlights another, more unusual reason, but one likely to become more common: how a film is distributed.

Partly out of her own experience with copyright and songs featured in the film, Paley has released Sita Sings the Blues under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License, which allows others to freely view, distribute, and create with her movie. This has made her and her film leading figures in the Free Culture movement. The political import of her film has drawn attention to her work, but also, arguably, overshadowed it, which is too bad, if not unfortunate, because Sita Sings the Blues is a beautiful and vibrant film that should be seen as much for its own merits as for what it represents in ongoing struggles over the copyright system.

At its heart, Sita Sings the Blues is an animated and multilayered retelling of the Indian epic, The Ramayana. The tag line for Sita is “The Greatest Break-up Story Ever Told”, and Paley intertwines words and images from The Ramayana, and of Rama and Sita, with ones from the dissolution of her own marriage (although in the film itself it isn’t clear if the characters of Dave and Nina are married or cohabiting).

Paley’s animation of The Ramayana is done in three primary styles. One uses images that look like picture book cut outs of the characters and a trio of Indonesian shadow puppets (Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally and Manish Acharya), who represent characters having a debate and discussion of the story and its meaning. Another uses spoken dialogue and an elegant painted style, with characters shown in profile and whose most prominent features are large, elongated eyes. Finally, Paley employs a digital-age update of traditional American Animation, think simple expressions and exaggerated anatomies – Sita has Betty Boop eyes, for example – in sections that also offer a musical commentary on the Hindu story. These segments use songs sung by ’20s / ’30s Jazz singer Annette Hanshaw as the voice of Sita.

The narration provided by the shadow puppets is important glue that holds the film together. Their conversations and discussions of characters and their meanings help to provide a context for Nina and Dave’s story and for the Hanshaw songs. The different threads come together slowly, but ultimately, they do merge into a working whole.

One clever touch is the inclusion of an “intermission” that features a parade of the film’s characters passing-by and mixing with each other. This nod to Indian cinema, where movies commonly run three or four hours, also functions to bring all of the different figures into a common world. More than a quirky trifle, this interlude draws attention to the constructedness of Paley’s Ramayana, treating her cast as being, at once, characters, actors, and audience.

It is, however, one of the film’s many moments that is almost too clever for its own good. Individual viewers will undoubtedly be divided as to whether the Annette Hanshaw segments are charming or overly precious. For the most part Paley stays on the right side of those lines, including in adding her own story to the film. There is little suggestion that those watching are meant to see she and Dave as Sita and Rama, even as Paley is drawing inspiration from the epic in dealing with her own feelings.

While the transformation of Sita Sings the Blues into a Free Culture case study happened most immediately because of legal issues involving the songs sung by Hanshaw, even without that impetus, it is not hard to see how Nina Paley could go from this film to activist. Sita Sings the Blues borrows, splices, and mixes influences from multiple sources, incorporating different versions of The Ramayana, using the shadow puppets as a nod to the already trans-national nature of the old story, and combining different styles in both the music and animation to tell its own story. The film is an exemplar of remix culture, freely and openly showing its roots and influences, but in the service of a clearly original work.

The Creative Commons license attached to Sita Sings the Blues means that film is widely available and in different formats. The FilmKaravan DVD under review here includes a commentary with Paley and’s Karl Fogel, a trailer, and a WNET interview with Paley. The DVD also includes press and publicity material for the film. It is also a “Creator Endorsed” disc, which means not only that Paley participated in the production of the DVD, but that she shares in the profits, too.

The commentary and interview are focused on the political and legal dimensions to Sita Sings the Blues and Paley’s work in the Free Culture movement. To the extent that her film has become known as much for these extra-textual reasons, it is at least in part due to Paley’s own willingness to let that happen. It would be easy to resent the attention for ‘non-artistic’ reasons. That Paley doesn’t appear to, despite having made a work that is both clever and beautiful, funny and poignant, is as good a reason as any to see her film. Better yet, organize a screening so that others can see it, too.

RATING 8 / 10