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Becoming Part of the Story: ‘Sita Sings the Blues’

sita_idol.jpgHow does a journalist become a part of a story that he is covering? I first met filmmaker Nina Paley in 2005 when she and some of her friends were hosting an animation party on the roof top of her Brooklyn apartment building. Paley had a short film that was a feminist take on the Ramayana called “Sita Sings the Blues,” with colorful drawings of Sita–her big breasts, thin waist, and round hips, and featured sad jazz songs by a 1920s singer Annette Hanshaw.
As a film writer, I was very impressed by Paley’s work–a fresh exploration of Ramayana, with Sita expressing her emotions through Hanshaw’s song: her unconditional love for Rama and her inability to understand why he sometimes doubted her and put her through difficult tests. And as a Hindu, I appreciated that Paley was respectful of the characters from the Ramayana. But I never thought that one day I’d be part of Paley’s “Sita” work.


“Sita” is now a full length animated feature. I accompanied Paley and some other members of her team to the 58th Berlinale, a film festival where it won a special jury mention. And “Sita” has had its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last Friday.
But where does my part in this take place? For the past couple of years, Paley has shown small segments of “Sita” at various film festivals in the U.S. And until last year I had observed the line between the journalist and the film–only talking about the project in public spaces.
Then last summer Paley invited three people, including myself, to a recording studio in Manhattan. What followed was one hour of unscripted recording: Paley throwing questions at us about the Ramayana and three of us interpreting the text. In the process we humanized Rama, Sita, and the other characters from the Ramayana, sometimes praising them and at other times questioning their motives and finding flaws in them. We were a funny, lively group. Now this conversation has become the central narrative of the film.
But Paley’s film is a lot more creative, with different animation styles, Hanshaw’s music and other contemporary sounds. And Paley saw parallels between her life and that of Sita. “It found me,” Paley said to the audience in Berlin, referring to the Ramayana and also to the time when she sought comfort in the Hindu text when her husband abruptly ended their marriage. She added that she understood her situation much better when she followed the plight of Sita–rejected by her husband Rama and left to fend for herself as she carried twin sons.
The story of Sita is appealing on so many levels. Check it out if you can.
–written by Aseem Chhabra

  • radha krishna

    As hindu women, we are often taught that our conduct must be like sita, and our husbands should be like Ram, the complete man. But this part in the Ramayana, also shows the flaw in Ram, who disowned his wife , believing in the washerman’s theory, rather than trusting his wife completely. the wife, on the other hand, the sita in us, is supposed to love, obey and believe her husband unconditionally. sadly, we do have incomplete “ram’s” in our lives, and we should stop suffering like sita did.it is a rather outdated theory,and we should take control of our lives, and be a modern-day sita.

  • yati deva sivam

    Namaste
    So, what would you suggest be Sita’s actions?

  • Raji

    We women often look at the abandonment of Sita by Rama. I have always focused on her strength and determination in taking charge of her life. She was a single mom and raised two sons who could defeat Rama in Ashvamedha yajna. She was a proud woman, who defied Rama at the end by asking mother earth to open up and take her into her wake rather than go through the humiliation of another Agni Pariksha before she could come home. Good for her. She is my hero. I have not seen the film, but I hope some of this comes through her character.

  • yati deva sivam

    It is good to be focused on the ‘positive’ lessons reaped thru these epics. The Maha Devas, in duality like us, but in a higher state, play out the lessons of life. The purpose of their actions, not always clear at first, reminding us we need to dig deep for the meanings and somethings we can never fully understand from our limited perspective. Ram/Sita reminds us of our stregnths and weaknesses and what is to be learned. Ram/Sita understand the Dharmic roles they enact out and uphold.

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