By Karina Longworth
Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” is a strange and beautiful little film, a potentially wispy slice of autobiography smartly elevated through irresistible, orgiastic style. The 82 minute feature cross cuts between the story of the director’s own divorce, and a loose retelling of the ancient Indian myth “Ramayana”; we’re led back and forth between the two milieu by three silhouetted figures who colloquially comment on the events in Indian-inflected English. There are also musical numbers, set mainly to songs by 1920s jazz siren Annette Hanshaw, which drop psychedelic Bollywood versions of the “Ramayana” characters into Busby Berkeley configurations. It’s an infectiously personal work, and all the more admirable as a sterling example of animation meant resolutely for adults.
An opening number set to department store bhangra gives way to modern-day San Francisco, where a pasty couple rendered in Squigglevision is awoken by their hysterical cat. This setting of domestic bliss is upset when the husband announces that he’s going to work in India for 6 months. The wife eventually follows, then returns to the States for work only to receive an email from the husband asking her not to come back. Meanwhile, on the “Ramayana” end, Sita is kidnapped away from her beloved husband, the future King Rama, and when she returns, Rama believes she’s been unfaithful. Sita is banished to the forest, Nina is banished to New York, and yet both women pine for the men who rejected them.
Both Sitas are a distancing device, to inflate the filmmaker’s own heartbreak into something bigger than it is. That’s not a pejorative criticism––who hasn’t had moments where their own ennui seemed bigger than themselves, transcendent of cultural barriers, beyond style and oblivious to time? Still, this wouldn’t work as well if it does if not for Paley’s self-deprecating sense of humor. While Sita is confronting the gods, Nina is weeping in a roach-infested studio in Brooklyn. Real life may take after myth, but the myth is far less mundane.
“If you want the rainbow, you must have the rain,” goes the chorus to one of Hanshaw’s songs used in the film, and that split between magic and gloom is the key to unearthing the substance within “Sita Sings the Blues‘” ample style. The jazz interludes, delivered by Sita’s hyper-glamorous double and presented in the film’s slickest animation, sit outside the narrative but explicitly connect Nina’s modern-day angst to Sita’s ancient predicament. Each of these songs, and the many gorgeous but over-the-top animated musical numbers through which they’re delivered, are about the heart’s strange ability to revise history, to make us long for and celebrate someone who has treated us badly, to fantasize about being desired by someone who has run us into the ground. “Sita Sings The Blues” bounces all over the map, but it always comes back to that horrible melancholy of focusing on a rainbow whilst standing in the pouring rain.