Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues made waves last year, and continues to ripple throughout the South Asian community, the film community, and across the Internet. When I spoke to the writer/director/animator for a feature at ABCDlady magazine, I had so much of our discussion left over that I knew I had to share some of it here.
For those just joining the Sita Sings the Blues party, it’s an animated, musical version of Valmiki’s Ramayana, the classic ancient Indian epic — and, make no mistake, it ain’t your mashi‘s Ramayana. Paley’s oft-mournful, oft-funny tale is a simplified story of a marriage hitting the rocks, paralleling the dissolution of her own union.
Much of the Ramayana can be interpreted as representing the divide between God (Rama) and his ultimate devotee, Sita. Doesn’t turning it into a story about someone getting dumped sort of diminish that?
Paley: “I hold [to] that interpretation, of the separation of God and God’s devotee, because that’s actually how I felt. I felt abandoned by God when [my marriage ended]. So that doesn’t remove that interpretation at all. In fact, I thought about it in that way: There’s no real problem if someone who is a jerk dumps you. But if someone amazing— if you’re separated from someone incredible — that’s a whole different thing. And Sita’s whole thing was that she was God’s wife. And I certainly went through a crisis of faith [myself]. For me, I think the power of the story comes through no matter how you tell it. If I had made Rama just some shmuck [it wouldn’t be the same]; he was very clearly an avatar of the divine, and what a great metaphor for life. Sometimes people ask me, ‘Well, what’s the moral of this story?’ It’s like, ‘The moral is that life is difficult.'”
As you were creating this project, did you give a lot of thought to how to handle the text and treading carefully, given its religious and cultural importance?
Paley: “I thought about that beforehand. I’m a good, liberal, educated, college town person. I would not have made this movie were I not really compelled to do it. Because I know that you’re really not supposed to — that a person of fair skin from the West is not supposed to make a movie from a culture that is ‘not hers.’ I thought about this all the time when I was working on it. Because I don’t want to be an insensitive ass. That’s another reason that I kept the personal [element], that I made it very, very clear what my point of view was. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was telling their story back to them, as though I know it better. Obviously I don’t. I can’t please everyone. The best I can do, the only thing I can do, is be honest to my own vision. And I did that, but it wasn’t without a lot of soul-searching and questioning.”
I think people react so strongly because when it comes to something like the Ramayana, we all have things that we relate to and specific ideas about how they should be portrayed.
Paley: “All the points that people raise [about Sita Sings the Blues] are quite valid and it’s a lot more productive if they write or create the stories as they see them — rather than try to get some Jewish artist to [portray] their vision. I’m going to tell mine! But if you want to have the cartoon be different, I put all those source files online for free — all the Flash files that I used to animate it. I’m hardcore about free culture. [People can] rearrange the clips, you can put new words into Sita’s mouth if you want. You could totally do it over again. I want that. The more versions the better! But I’m not going to change mine for somebody else. I really hope that I’ll see more versions of the Ramayana. If I’ve bugged people, I would hope that would be the outcome. Rather than just…seething rage [laughs].”