One of the most enduring images during the film’s opening credits had been Sita, rendered in the film’s simplified flash animation, massaging the feet of her husband, Rama. In the final shot of the film, the image returned, but the roles had been reversed. As Rama massaged his wife’s feet, Sita offered a knowing wink to camera, and the film cut to credits: Directed by Nina Paley.
“That’s it?” asked Eleanor, sitting up straighter as the credits rolled by, accompanied by sitar punk. “That’s the entire movie?”
“Essentially, yeah,” Gwen said. “I suppose the next plot point is Paley making the film itself, and that doesn’t need to be shown.”
“But there’s no…” Eleanor scrambled for the film’s missing piece. “…resolution? The ending is just…Rama rejects Sita, and I guess Dave rejects Nina, and then they’re cool with it, so…that’s all?”
“That’s all,” quoted Dania. The phrase had been appended at the end of most of Annette Hanshaw’s musical numbers throughout the film. Eleanor scowled.
“I don’t know what else you’re looking for,” Gwen said. “The emotional resolution is complete when both women get over their respective men. They can move on with their lives.”
“Yeah, except Sita can’t, because she’s returned to Mother Earth,” Eleanor countered. “And why does Nina turn to the Ramayana? Because it’s there?”
“I assumed she’d heard about it beforehand, somehow,” Dania suggested. “It felt too strange a turn to make without some prior idea about what it is.”
“I can’t get over the appropriation angle of the story,” Eleanor sighed, putting a hand to her temple. “Is that fair? You feel it too, right?”
Gwen leaned back into the couch, her hand instinctively moving to her chin. Certainly, she had considered the question of authorship –– Paley, a white New Yorker, adapting an Indian sacred text to work through a breakup. The arguments against the film wrote themselves: that Paley’s Sparknotes rendition of the Hindu epic robbed it of the gravitas it deserved, that her use of an American singer to represent Sita’s inner thoughts removed the character’s voice, that the parallels between her own rejection and Sita’s were tenuous at best and self-deifying at worst.
And yet, Gwen thought to herself.
“I mean, it’s obvious to me,” Eleanor continued. “She shouldn’t get to take another culture’s work and filter it through this haze of trippy animation and relationship drama, just to get over a garbage man.”
“It’s really confusing,” Dania added. “And I know the Ramayana. It’s…not a good retelling.”
“It’s not!” shouted Eleanor. “I can’t tell what parts of the story I’m supposed to take seriously, and what’s being played for comedy. Especially in the sections with the three scholars.”
“Yeah, what were those parts?” Dania asked. “Did she just hire three people to discuss the story? What was the prompt there?”
“They were three friends she knew, or ran into during the process,” Gwen clarified. “All of them met her through other projects and she recruited them to discuss the Ramayana together. None of it was scripted.”
“Well, then I have a thousand questions about their knowledge of the story,” Eleanor said, “because they definitely couldn’t remember all of what happened.”
“I mean, they weren’t experts, right?” asked Dania.
“I guess not.”
“Then that made sense to me. If she’s literally grabbing normal people off the street –– so to say –– to get their gut reactions to the Ramayana. That checks out.”
“But why random people?” Eleanor wondered. “Why not scholars? Why not work closely with people who know the story?”
“What would they bring to the project?” Gwen finally asked. Her gaze narrowed in on Eleanor.
“What do you mean?” Eleanor asked, bewildered. “Legitimacy? Some real-world connection to the story?”
“But how would that manifest?” Gwen pressed. “What exact life experience must you have to be able to speak on the Ramayana?”
Eleanor thought, more about phrasing than what her point would be. “If you grew up in…” she replied, “…a culture where the Ramayana was a part of your life. Where you’ve known about it for a long time, and didn’t turn to it as therapy after your break-up.”
“Sounds alright to me,” said Gwen. “A question, then: does that make the three voices discussing the Ramayana eligible to argue about it, in your consideration?”
Eleanor looked askance. “I guess so,” she muttered. “It’s not that they’re not eligible. It’s a question of whether Paley is, and how she’s using the other voices in the film to bolster her own retelling.”
“I don’t get the sense that that’s what she’s doing.”
Dania cocked her head to the side, looking at the screen. “Well, then, what is she doing?”
“The more I think about the film, the more I come around to…,” Gwen began. “At first, I was troubled by a film that’s fundamentally about an Indian epic text centering the voice of its white creator, and making it about her story.”
“Well, yeah,” Eleanor cut in. “Obviously.”
“Let me finish,” Gwen continued. “That was at first. As the film continued, however, I started to see more about what Paley’s intention with the film was. And…as strange as this sounds, centering herself in the narrative is exactly why I don’t hate the film.”
Eleanor threw her hands into the air, falling into the couch. “I can’t believe you’re defending the film! Of course you’re defending it!”
Gwen frowned. “I never said it was a perfect film. Only that I understand the impulse behind it!”
“I don’t understand anything about it!” Dania shouted, jumping back in. “Putting aside the question of should the movie exist, with its filmmaker and stuff, the film exists. And it’s nonsense.”
“It’s thematically consistent.”
“Yeah, so is performance art,” said Dania. “Doesn’t make it good. Everything about the film felt like this peyote dream. Why is it animated in four different styles? What’s with the shifting from serious to comedic tone? And why the jazz music?”
“Okay, I bought the four animation styles, at the very least,” Eleanor said. “It helped me understand that there’s four storylines running parallel to each other. The literal story of the Ramayana is told with painted illustrations, the commentary on the story is done with shadow puppets…”
“Digital shadow puppets.”
“The musical interludes from Sita are in the same strange geometric Flash animation from the opening and closing. And then there’s the scratchily animated sections about Nina and Dave’s relationship.”
“Okay, cool, it’s four different stories,” Dania answered. “Why are we watching four different stories? Like, the ties between the Ramayana and Nina’s relationship aren’t there. She doesn’t get taken from Dave, she never has to prove her worth. And I still don’t get the musical numbers.”
“It’s emotional parallels, not plot ones,” said Gwen. “Paley turns to the Ramayana not because it mirrors what’s going on in her own life, but because she sees a kindred spirit in Sita. Someone who was separated from her lover, only to be reunited and discover that he no longer cares about her.”
“Well, let’s argue the finer points of Rama and Sita’s emotional health at a later date,” Eleanor said.
“Regardless, it was something Paley could see herself in,” Gwen explained. “The Annette Hanshaw recordings are about one-sided relationships. The narrative scope of the songs is the singer slowly realizing that she doesn’t need this inconstant man in her life, as Paley does. And as Sita does. That’s why the title is ‘Sita Sings The Blues’ –– it’s taking this story about a great man and showing it through the filter of his wife.”
“No, though the filter of someone who identifies with his wife.”
“Well, they have the same arc.”
“They don’t, though,” Eleanor pushed back. “You just said Paley was the center of this film. If its her story, why are we watching Sita?”
“Because it’s a parallel, Eleanor!” said Gwen. “It’s how Paley is working through the emotion of her own life! And showcasing it in an artistic way!”
“I’m not interested in paying money to watch a white filmmaker psychoanalyze characters from the Ramayana!”
“Did you pay money to watch this?”
“No, because you found it online.”
“It’s available for free online!”
Gwen showed Eleanor her source –– a link, via the official website, to a YouTube video, containing the full film.
“Paley did have a small batch of DVDs printed, right when the film came out,” Gwen admitted. “But, beyond that, the film was registered under Creative Commons licensing, and later given over to the public domain. She doesn’t make any money from the film.”
Eleanor read the licensing agreement, explained on the site. “Well, not anymore,” she said.
“Sure,” Gwen said. “Considering the context behind the film, I don’t know if I can get upset at a public domain work –– the Ramayana –– being adapted by an artist for their own psychological processing, and then released into the public domain for other people to watch, or not. It’s not as though Paley was capitalizing on something that belonged to an Hindu artist.”
“I mean, it does belong to the Hindu community,” countered Eleanor. “Public domain or not.”
“A version of it, anyway,” Dania pointed out. “The idea of it. As the shadow puppets make clear, even people who grew up on this story can’t always keep it straight.”
Eleanor looked unconvinced.
“I don’t know, I’m still trying to figure out what it’s going for,” Dania said. “I see Gwen’s point about how Nina definitely has the ability to make this film –– like, she’s not preventing Indian artists from discussing it, and she’s not making a significant amount of money off of it. And the animation, as fever-dream as it gets, is still very cleanly done. But the plot keeps tripping me up.”
“As a thematic exploration of how we heal from emotional loss, it’s intriguing,” said Gwen. “Not perfect, and not entirely unproblematic, but worth discussion for sure.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor ceded. The conceit of the film, in light of its creator, was a hurdle too high for her to leap. Still, she knew that Gwen hadn’t technically been wrong: the conversation was illuminating.
“Perhaps worth discussion,” Eleanor repeated. “That’s all.”
Image Credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston