Sita Sings the Blue: Nina Paley’s Tale of the Ramayana

In her first feature-length film, Sita Sings the Blues, comic strip artist–turned–filmmaker Nina Paley juxtaposes multiple narrative and visual styles to create a highly entertaining and affecting vision of the Ramayana–the ancient Sanskrit epic and essential fixture of the Hindu canon.

Musical numbers choreographed to the 1920s-era jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw spin off an astonishing whirlwind of flying monkeys, evil monsters, gods, goddesses, warriors, sages, and winged eyeballs.

“Sita Sings the Blues” spans continents and millennia in parallel stories of two wives being unfairly dumped, one in the American autobiographical present, the other in the mythical Indian past. Three hilarious Indonesian shadow puppets narrate both the ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the epic.

The program, co-presented by Irene Kotlarz/Platform International Animation Festival <www.platformfestival.com&gt;, sponsored by Live Action & Animation DUCK Studios <www.duckstudios.com&gt; and introduced by Maureen Selwood, CalArts Experimental Animation Faculty <www.maureenselwood.com&gt;

Nina Paley on her Film

“In 1988, at 20, I left my hometown of Urbana, IL, for Santa Cruz, California, to fulfill a naive dream of becoming a new age, crystal-wielding hippie. Instead I became a cynical cartoonist. Nina¬ís Adventures, my semi-autobiographical, often experimental, not-quite-underground alternative weekly comic strip, appeared in the Santa Cruz Comic News, the LA Reader, Comic Relief Magazine, the Funny Times, and the San Francisco Examiner. I also created two solo “alternative” comic books for Dark Horse Comics, and various shorter pieces were published in anthologies by Last Gasp, Rip Off Press, the feminist Laugh Lines Press, and Kitchen Sink Press.

Nina¬ís Adventures was a labor of love, but it didn’t pay the rent. After 7 years I succumbed to courtship by major syndicates, releasing my first mainstream daily, Fluff, which enjoyed a modest run in about 40 mainstream newspapers worldwide.

I shot my first film, Luv Is, in one week with a vintage super-8 camera, using stop-motion clay puppets and a cardboard set on my living room table after moving to San Francisco in 1991. I went on to make 3 more films in 1998, each exploring a different medium or technique: Cancer (drawing and scratching on 35mm), I Heart My Cat (16 mm stop-motion) and Follow Your Bliss (traditional pencil and ink on paper).

In 1999, thanks to of in-kind donations from Kodak and CFI Labs in Los Angeles and Imagica USA, I made the world’s first completely cameraless IMAX film, Pandorama. I received a grant from the Film Arts Foundation to produce Fetch! (2001), a short film incorporating optical illusions.

Then I plunged headlong into a controversial series about overpopulation and the environment. The centerpiece of this 2002 trilogy, which I now call my “Fertility Cycle,” was the 3-and-a-half minute The Stork, in which a serene natural landscape is bombed by bundles of joy ¬ñ followed by Goddess of Fertility and Fertco.

In June 2002, I moved to Trivandrum, India, following my American husband who had taken a job there. Upon my arrival I was confronted with his mid-life crisis, a complete emotional withdrawal. Meanwhile I was in the midst of developing a new comic strip for King Features Syndicate, The Hots.

I moved to Brooklyn, and began teaching animation at Parsons School of Design. Emotionally, however, my relocation commenced a terrible year of grief. The Ramayana took on new depth and meaning for me; it seemed to capture the essence of painful relationships, and describe a blueprint of human suffering. My grief and longing for the man who rejected me increasingly resembled Sita’s; my husband’s withdrawal reminded me of Rama. In Manhattan I heard the music of Annette Hanshaw for the first time. A radio star of the late 1920’s, Hanshaw specialized in heartfelt blues and torch songs. In my grief-addled state, her songs, my story, and the Ramayana merged into one: Sita Sings the Blues.

Los Angeles premiere
2008, 82 min., 35mm