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Interview with Nina Paley, Animator and Director of Sita Sings the Blues, a Fantastic Jazz Musical Retelling of the Ramayana

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American cartoonist Nina Paley has one of the hottest indie movies around, Sita Sings the Blues (rating: 86), her animated retelling of the classic Hindi story called the Ramayana, set to the jazz songs of 1920's torch singer Annette Hanshaw. Released for free on the internet in 2008, it zoomed up many critics' best-of lists in 2009, and is finally receiving limited release in some independent theaters this year. I asked her a few questions about the movie and her support of Free Culture -- a method of distribution that she has come to embrace as a way of life.

What was it like to offer your own take on the Ramayana? Obviously, the film itself shows how you came to discover the text, as you draw parallels between Sita's story and your own. But some cultural critics were agitated by the very idea of a non-Indian making a movie about an ancient Hindi story. Did you have a sense of how faithful you wanted to be to any one version of the story, or how much license you wanted to give yourself? How did you create your version of Sita?

Hmm, that's a big question. When I first read a Ramayana, in Trivandrum, I thought I'd make a teeny little comic book, maybe 4 pages long, where Sita leaves Rama to join an agricultural collective instead of Mother Earth. I'm embarrassed to write that now, but I was new to the story. Fortunately I read more and more versions; then I had my breakup-by-email, which radically altered my understanding of the story. I came to revere the Ramayana, and Sita. The "why" of the story remains incomprehensible - like life! - but that's what makes it great. It's so true, even if it makes little rational sense. So when I embarked on the feature film project in 2005, I didn't want to change the story, just tell it in a way that was true to me. Because I have a sense of humor, my version has a sense of humor. But all the plot drivers and meaningful parts of the story come straight from the Valmiki translations I had access to.

I should mention I read as many Ramayanas as I could. I was limited to those available in English, but that left quite a few. I read commentaries and scholarly articles about the Ramayana as well, including Paula Richman's books Many Ramayanas and Questioning Ramayanas. I watched about 8 hours of the endless Doordarshan TV series, which became the canonical Ramayana in India in the 1980's. That series is based much more on Tulsidas's Ramayana (Ramacharitamanas) than Valmiki's - they are quite different strains of the story. The "original" Ramayana text was by Valmiki, although it doesn't survive today; only copies of copies of copies survive. My favorite version, which came to be my authoritative source, is the Penguin Global translation by Arshia Sattar. Sattar translated directly from Sanskrit to English, omitting her own spin or commentary save the excellent introduction. Anyone interested in reading a Ramayana, read hers!

The most visually striking aspect of the movie is its many shifts in visual styles, from the rich and voluptuously curvy musical sections, to the stop-motion-inspired shadow puppet narration sequences, to the squiggly interludes from your personal life. How did the film's visuals take shape?

I looked at as much Ramayana art as I could while making the film. I bought books, visited museums and libraries, and scoured the internet. Ramayana art traditions span thousands of years and miles. The story is interpreted not only in India, but also Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia - pretty much all of South and South-East Asia. So some of the varying animation styles reflect the diversity of Ramayana-related art traditions. But they're only the tiniest little sample.

I also didn't want to get bored; varying the visual styles was a way to keep myself interested. It's also a cheap trick to keep the audience slightly more engaged, in the face of the limited, economical animation I had to use.

In any Indian movie, the music -- and the sumptuous dancing that accompanies it -- is the most important part...

Not necessarily - not all Indian movies are Bollywood musicals!

The music for this film is as much a mishmash as the visuals, a mixture of a composed score, uptempo bhangra-inspired songs by My Pet Dragon, and of course the 1920's torch songs of Annette Hanshaw. How did you choose the music for the film, and how did it come together?

The Hanshaw songs "chose" me, by so perfectly expressing my own state of mind during my break-up, and also fitting so perfectly with Sita's story. I first heard them shortly after that fateful email message, while sofa surfing in New York. Like the Ramayana, they "hit me where I live," so to speak.

Much of the other music was commissioned by me. Todd Michaelsen did the title track, "Agni Pariksha," and much of the score. I met him through his wife Reena Shah, who performed the speaking voice of Sita and was the dance model for the rotoscoped Agni Pariksha scene (she also sang that song, and her mother, Laxmi Shah, wrote the lyrics - truly a family affair). Rohan composed "Rama's Great" (to my lyrics) and "Burnt Sugar," which I used for the trailer. Nik Phelps made the "Intermission" score. I also used music from 2 CDs: Black Water by Rudresh Mahanthappa (who was my neighbor in Brooklyn) and Chill Aum by MasalaDosa, who happily found me online.

Speaking of which, in a few weeks we're finally going to release the official soundtrack! The web page isn't done yet, but you can find the track list here. The soundtrack was delayed by the usual rights nonsense, but it's all worked out now. I'm very excited about it - it sounds great. I'm privileged to know such talented musicians.

After years of copyright battles over the music you used in the movie, you chose to forego the traditional copyright route and instead licensed it with Creative Commons, making the film freely available, distributable and remixable on the internet, available for anyone anywhere to watch or download. What are the economics of opting for free distribution?

Mike Masnick of techdirt.com calls it "CwF+RTB": Connect with Fans + Reason to Buy = Money. I often say, "the content is free, the container is not." I've written extensively about this at QuestionCopyright.org, where I'm artist-in-residence; a good place to start is here.

Could a young artist support her or himself that way, or would you need some level of fame before it would be worthwhile?

There are no guaranteed ways for artists to support themselves solely from their art. Free Culture isn't a magic solution for making money, but it's a lot better than imposing artificial scarcity via copyright monopolies. It is a much more competitive way to release cultural works, because it taps into the energy of the audience, rather than fighting against it, which is what proprietary models do. Freeing works removes one obstacle to their success, but works need more than just freedom to succeed.

More than anything, sharing work freely feels right to me, as an artist. At sitasingstheblues.com I wrote, "From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes." That's true of all culture, not just "Sita." I don't create in a vacuum. I'm influenced by everything I encounter, and I use the technology and language of my time.

In the case of "Sita," the free release is getting me significantly more money than a conventional proprietary release would. That's not saying much, because the most conventional distributors told me I could expect was $25,000 - maybe if I were incredibly lucky I'd see $50,000 (so far I've gotten over $70,000 with the free release, and it's far from over). The more people share the film freely, the more they buy DVDs and other ancillary merch (see here). Also the more they see "Sita" online, the more they buy tickets to see it in cinemas. It's beautiful to see. I've spoken with many artists who are afraid to share their works, believing the audience will exploit them and harm them. My experience is the opposite: the audience is more supportive than I ever dreamed. The more I give, the more I get back. I sound like a New-Ager now, but it's true; I've never been more optimistic in my life. I guess this experience of freeing my work has fundamentally transformed me, because I used to be a lot more cynical.

If you had the first part of your career to do over again, what would you have done?

Nothing. I'm really grateful to be where I am, and I needed those difficult learning experiences to get here.

Are there any more feature films in your near future? What are you working on next?

Minute Memes! A series of short films with QuestionCopyright.Org.

I have no plans for another feature film, but "Sita" started as a short film, so you never know...

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.