Sita Sings the Blues is a 2008 film written, produced and directed by Nina Paley, who also features in the film. In a rather unorthodox fashion, the entire film is created using the Adobe animation program Flash, something highly irregular for a feature-length film. In addition to this, Paley has made the film entirely free to watch online, to screen in public, and even broadcast on television, without ever having to seek her permission.
The film was inspired by a rather unpleasant experience Paley had with her ex-husband, Dave, the details of which also feature in the film. They were (in her mind at least) happily married and living in San Francisco with their cat. He was offered a job in Trivandrum, India, on a six-month contract, which he took whilst Nina stayed behind. A month after leaving he called, the first time since he left, to tell her the contract had been extended by another year. Paley asked him what that meant for them, as they lived in America, to which he suggested she could move to India. Dave was less than enthused at her arrival, however, seeming increasingly distant and uninterested in her, both in conversation and in the bedroom. Shortly afterwards, whilst on a business trip back to America, she was greeted by an email from Dave simply saying “Dear Nina, don’t come back, love Dave”. It was during her time in India that Paley was introduced to the Ramayana, one of the great Hindu epics that tells the story of Rama and Sita. Feeling a connection to the plight of Sita, she embarked on the project over the next few years.
Sita is animated in several different ways, each style being used for a different story arc or function within the film, all of which are intertwined with one another. The contemporary sections that tell Nina’s story of divorce are presented in a simplistic ‘Squigglevision’ style (think Roobarb and Custard), as well as incorporating photos of buildings, cars, planes and such. Sections that act out excerpts from the Ramayana use traditional Rajput-style paintings of the characters and environments, simply transporting them across the frame and pivoting the figures at the joints to animate them, as you would a shadow puppet. Shadow puppets are actually used to represent the three Indian actors who discuss the meaning and various interpretations of the Ramayana in a similar but slightly different style; the pivoting animation is again used, but as the actors discuss the story in a loose, conversational style, pictures cut out of books are animated behind the puppets as amusing visual representations of what they discuss. It’s a loose, entertaining and very educational way of contextualising the source text, and is pulled off wonderfully.
The style that is by far the most striking, however, is the highly modern vector graphic animation used in the musical numbers sung by Sita that are interspersed with the other sections. For a rather simplistic animation program, Paley manages to create a lush, vibrant world in every frame, getting the absolute most out of the software. It is also in these sections that the crux of the film is best exemplified: the relationship between ancient and modern. The modern animation technology used to animate Sita contrasted with the crackly old 1920s jazz pieces sung by Annette Hanshaw; the lyrics of the songs fitting perfectly with the development of Rama and Sita’s story; the ancient parable of the Ramayana and its relation to Nina Paley’s failed marriage in the 21st century – all of these things are neatly summed-up with these inspired musical pieces.
As mentioned above, Paley originally made the film free under a ‘Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License’ (distributors are not allowed to copyright or attach data restrictions management to the film) but has since made it public domain, meaning it is free to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast or remix, all without ever having to seek Paley’s permission. A vocal opponent to outdated copyright laws, on the film’s website she asks “conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permissions and fees?”, and states “the law is an ass I don’t want to ride… the old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging and I’m happy to be part of that.”
All Paley asks in return is that if you enjoy the film, that you would consider supporting the artist in some way or other, as her faith in everyday people leads her to believe that they want to do so. For a film so completely about the relations between old and new, the distribution aspect of Sita is 100% cutting edge, a contribution towards ripping down broken and outdated legality and creating something more fitting for the 21st century. On that note, embedded below is the fascinating, hilarious and educational Sita Sings the Blues for you to watch in the comfort of your own home. Just be sure to spread the word when you’re done.