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Sita Sings the Blues: A Vibrant Ramayana Retelling with Humor and Pathos

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Cartoonist Nina Paley has a distinctive style in her strips, whether she's drawing couples or cats: round, expressive faces with easy, honest smiles and occasionally painful comeuppances. Paley has a goofy sense of humor and a refreshing lack of sarcasm or snark. She spent six years making Sita Sings the Blues, a semi-autobiographical retelling of the Ramayana, a classic Hindu epic, a tragic love story about a prince named Rama who suspects his wife Sita has been unfaithful.

Paley, an American, first discovered it on a trip to India that she took with her then-husband, who was living there at the time. When she came back to the States, he dismissed her by email, and she threw herself more deeply into the epic, eventually weaving her own story in with her Sita-centric version of the Ramayana, narrated -- with frequent arguments and asides -- by a group of her Indian friends, and set to music with torch songs by a little-remembered 1920s singer named Annette Hanshaw.

The movie was largely animated in Flash, as could be guessed from its ultra-stylized visuals and hypercolorful backgrounds. But each different thread has its own visual style. Nina's story is animated in drab detail, often filling in details using photographs of desks and picture frames rather than animating them; the figures seem to be animated in Squigglevision, with a sloppy, loose feel to their character design. The narrators' segments are animated like a Terry Gilliam interlude in Monty Python; the narrators are animated as shadow puppets, and the characters in the story -- Rama, Sita, and others -- are book illustrations moved across backgrounds and given crudely animated mouths. The sung segments are animated in Paley's signature round, expressive style, with the voluptuous, bosomy Sita singing the blues with Hanshaw's record-scratched voice. And the climactic breakup scene, where Rama casts away Sita and Nina's husband breaks up with her, is a psychedelic tour de force set to modern Hindi-tinged electronica, featuring the outline of a rotoscoped dancer whirling desperately as she sings her undying devotion. Paley, who was the film's writer, producer, director, and editor, artfully weaves together all of the film's threads.

It's a very short movie: around eighty-two minutes, plus a three-minute intermission in the middle and four minutes of credits. It's a credit to Paley's vision that the mishmash of styles remains coherent, and that her modern take on an ancient story feels compelling and relevant without seeming condescending, thanks to her narrators. It's a remarkable film, all the more remarkable considering that its artistry manages to overshadow the fact that it's essentially a Flash film distributed for free on the internet. Paley completely bypassed the studio system, funding the film through donations and a Guggenheim grant, and personally battling for access to the Hanshaw songs in the film, then releasing the film for free distribution on the web. In the year since it's been freely available on the web (downloadable at sitasingstheblues.com), it has been greeted with almost universal acclaim: a 93 rating on Metacritic, an 8.0 on IMDB. And it deserves it.

Paley's battles over copyright has turned her into a full-fledged advocate for "free culture," and her free release of the film comes partly from her desire to get it in as many hands as possible, from her belief that excessively extended copyright law is strangling content by keeping it out of the public domain. This is Lawrence Lessig territory, and while I sympathize with his goals I can't possibly do them justice. But Paley can. If freeing up more content -- especially by an artist like Hanshaw, who retired from singing 70 years ago -- and making it available for wider use could result in the creation of more art as inventive as Sita Sings the Blues, who could be opposed?

Rating: 86

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.