What do a 3,000-year-old Sanskrit epic, a '20s-era jazz singer and Indonesian shadow puppets have in common? They're all part of the eclectic cultural tapestry that is “Sita Sings the Blues,” an 82-minute animated feature that combines autobiography with a retelling of the classic Indian myth, the "Ramayana," and that required its creator, the syndicated comic-strip artist Nina Paley, to spend three years transforming herself into a one-woman moving-picture studio.
“At some point everything went through my computer,” said Paley, who is self-taught and whose longest animated film before this clocked in at just over four minutes. Her decision to do it herself may have satisfied her creative urges, but it also put her more than $20,000 in debt. “That's why not everyone does it,” she said.
The film brilliantly intersperses diverse styles and elements and establishes a parallel between the epic and Paley's own story. Episodes with dialogue from the Ramayana are enacted using painted figures of the characters in profile, which strongly resemble the 18th-century Indian tradition of Rajput painting. They serve as a more traditional style of dramatic narrative, although the dialogue is frequently ironic, inappropriately modern or otherwise humorous. Three silhouettes, traditional Indonesian shadow puppets, dispute the details of the Ramayana's tragic saga of its lead female character Sita, who is exiled by her husband, Rama, who fears she has been unfaithful after she is abducted by a demon king.
In between are flash-animation musical numbers featuring Sita in voluptuous Betty Boop-like form -- almond-shaped head, saucer eyes and swaying hips -- accompanied by the warbling voice of a real-life flapper-era singer named Annette Hanshaw.
At other points Paley weaves in the story of her own collapsing marriage. She starts the film living happily in a San Francisco apartment with her husband and cat. Her husband then accepts an offer of working in Trivandrum, India, and moves there alone to take up the position. After several months of very little contact, he finally calls Nina to inform her that the contract has been extended.
Bewildered by his callous indifference to their separation, Nina takes the initiative to join her husband in India. Upon her arrival he appears deeply unenthusiastic to be reunited with her and demonstrates neither affection nor interest. A while later, Nina flies to a meeting in New York. In New York, she receives a brief e-mail from her husband telling her not to return to India, that their relationship is over. Sad and alone, she stays in New York, finding comfort in a new cat and her study of the Ramayana.
"Sita Sings the Blues" was awarded the Cristal Grand Prix for Best Feature at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and the "Crystal Bear Special Mention" in the category of Best Feature Film (Generation 14plus) at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival.
Compiled by Cultural Correspondent