I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Sita Sings the Cosmic Freakin’ Blues

by Bill Benzon
June 25, 2013
Imagine that you’ve moved from San Francisco to Trivandrum in Kerala, India, to be with your husband, who’s taken a job there. Six months later you fly to New York for a week to set up a gig for yourself. While stateside your beloved husband sends you an email saying, don’t come back, I want a divorce.

What do you do?
  • Wail and cry in despair? “You bet.”
  • Marinate in shame and humiliation? “Check.”
  • Beg him to take you back? “Hmmm...I guess, yes.”
  • Curl up in a ball of white-hot anger? “Check.”
  • Dream of a happy reunion? “Check.”
  • Make a feature-length film about marital disaster and monkey warriors in ancient India using recordings by a 1920s American pop star? “Um, err, check? No no no! Wait a minute. What did you say?”
I said: write, draw, animate, direct, and produce a feature-length film that’s been shown and won prizes on six continents. That’s what I said. “Are you crazy? My man’s just dumped me by email! I’m not going to make a movie! I’m going to crawl in hole and die. And then I’m going to rip his guts out!”

But then you aren’t Nina Paley. After she hauled her tuchus up out of anger, shame, and despair she made Sita Sings the Blues. Not in one fell swoop. But in pieces.

While sofa surfing at a friend’s she discovered the music of Annette Hanshaw, a now-forgotten pop star from the 1920s. These old popular songs spoke to Paley. Hanshaw was singing about how Paley felt. So in 2003, without any intention of making a feature-length film, she decided to use one of them, “Mean to Me”, in a short animated film illustrating an episode from the Ramayana, a Hindu epic about the great king, Rama, and his wife, Sita.

[Figure 1]

By this time Paley had come to see her own story as yet another variation of Sita’s story. She too was dumped by her husband, and in a way that was mysterious to her. Just as Paley had felt humiliated and wondered what she’d done to deserve this, so did Sita. Or course there are differences between their stories. One of them is that, where Sita bore Rama two sons, Paley birthed no kids for anyone. But she did make a movie for us all.

But, as I indicated, that’s not what she set out to do. She set out to make just a few videos of Annette Hanshaw’s songs. The video of “Mean to Me” did well on the festival circuit. It also did well online, where people from all over the world watched it, commented on it, and asked for more, more more! Paley did more videos, and got more views.

And thus a film was born, piece by piece, as Paley made more music videos. As the videos piled up, she decided to tell the story of Rama and Sita in a more traditional narrative form and to tell her own story in parallel. She’s now got three things going: self-contained music videos of 1920s pop songs, the Sita/Rama story as a continuous narrative, and the Nina story. Somewhere in there Paley applies for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which was awarded in 2006. Now she could take time off from annoying, if necessary, free-lance gigs and finish the film.

[Figure 2]

And, wouldn’t you know it, her muse demanded that she add a fourth element to the film: kibitzing bystanders. Paley invited three Indian friends into the recording studio and asked them questions about the Ramayana, which they all knew from childhood like good Christians know the Bible. Well, they sorta’ knew it, but they didn’t all know the same version. Whereas Christianity, in contrast, has gone to great lengths to make sure that its sacred texts exist in one, and only one authorized version, Hinduism has been more loosely organized. Its sacred texts, of which the Ramayana is one, exist in many versions all over South and Southeast Asia. [1]

So Paley’s friends told their versions of the story and tossed in their own opinions on Sita and Rama, and on life and relationships, as people are inclined to do. Fun stuff. Now all Paley had to do was add this into the mix, create a grand sacrifice sequence for the climax, and she’d be done.

[Figure 3]

The final film has been animated in five different styles. All of the Hanshaw songs use a ‘cartoony’ style with rounded bodies, big heads, and big eyes—Sita as Betty Boop. [Figure 1] For the basic story of Rama and Sita Paley used a style based on classical Indian miniatures. [Figure 2] For her own story Paley used a looser and more ‘organic’ style based on the so-called squiggle-vision technique. [Figure 3] Nina’s Indian friends became Indonesian shadow-puppets talking among collage materials from Hindu devotional cards, magazine cut-outs, and various images Paley grabbed here and there from the web. [Figure 4]

[Figure 4]

That’s four styles. The fifth style is for the Agni Pariksha, Sita’s trial by fire and the film’s climax. [2] Rama had Sita prove her innocence in the traditional way, by walking through fire. If she come through alive and well, she’d be judged pure. If not, well, then she’s burned to a crisp and Rama’s honor is restored, no?

She came through fine, but he still dumped her.

For this scene Paley had Reena Shah, an actress and classical Indian dancer who’d voiced the part of Sita, dance in a studio. Then she rotoscoped (traced) Shah’s movements into the film, clothed her in a wide variety of colors and textures, paraded her through a dozen Hindu deities, and circled them all with rings within rings of fire. [Figure 5] This scene happens in the film after Nina gets the fatal email. She screams and WHAM! it’s trial by fire. Nina’s life crashes into the Sita myth and into the lives of millions of women who’ve been dumped or abused for no intelligible reason.

[Figure 5]

There we have it: five visual styles, several versions of the same man-dumps-woman story, American pop tunes from the 1920s, and snippets from contemporary Hindu cards and magazines—the standard snips, snails, sugar, and spice that make up world culture. All rolled into one.

It took Paley five or so years to put this together and now she’s ready for the happy ending.

Fat chance.

When the time came to put the completed film before the public, Paley got slammed by copyright issues. While Hanshaw’s recordings were in the public domain, the underlying songs were not. Paley ended up spending $70,000 in legal fees and licensing fees just so she could release the film into the public domain. [3]

As if that weren’t bad enough, fundamentalist Hindus got word of the film and complained bitterly about how this “white Christian woman”, as some have called her, was insulting their religion. But Paley’s not Christian, she’s Jewish. And she’s not insulting anyone. On the contrary, she’s demonstrating the power and beauty of this old Hindu story. Her version is just one more telling of the tale.

And a good one, may there be many more. [4]

Sita Sings the Blues premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008 where it won a Crystal Bear award, the first of many awards. In 2009 Paley released it online for free download and toured it to festivals on six continents. [5]

Meanwhile, she’s begun exploratory work on a new project, Seder-Masochism: A Self-Hating Haggadah. [6] This will be a retelling of the Exodus story. I, for one, can’t wait.


[1] Amardeep Singh discusses this in “Animating a Postmodern Ramayana: Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues”, which is online: http://lehigh.academia.edu/AmardeepSingh/Papers/175606/Animating_a_Postmodern_Ramayana_Nina_Paleys_Sita_Sings_the_Blues

[2] I’ve written about the Agni Pariksha segment here: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2010/07/agni-pariksha-in-context.html I’ve also interviewed Paley about the Agni Pariksha episode. This page has a list of segments of that interview which I’ve put online: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/p/sita-chronicles.html You can download a PDF of the entire interview here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/57695721/Paley-on-Agni-Pariksha

[3] Rich Bailey has written an excellent piece about the copyright issues and about how Paley is making money from this FREE film: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/arts-entertainment/filmmaker-nina-paley-freeing-copyright-for-art-and-profit-53342.html

[4] Paley encourages people to remix their own versions of the film. She’s put all her Flash files online at Archive.org: http://www.archive.org/details/Sita_Sings_the_Blues

[5] You can find download links here: http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html

[6] Paley’s recently posted Kickstarter project where she explains her new film: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1850676295/seder-masochism-phase-i

Bill Benzon is an independent scholar, writer, musician and photographer living in Jersey City, NJ. He published Beethoven¹s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture in 2001 and blogs at New Savanna, The Valve, and Replicated Typo.