The Pixar-via-Windows 95 3D animation and tribal electronica of its opening sequence might bring to mind yoga pants, Chinese character tattoos, and acupuncture for purse-living poodles, but don’t run for a kombucha just yet: get past the intro, and Sita Sings the Blues rewards viewers with a different kind of multiculti, in which the titular Indian goddess lip syncs to 1920s jazz songs instead of Bollywood song-and-dance extravaganzas, while silhouettes of Indonesian shadow puppets mumble, à la Home Movies with Indian accents, through synopses and criticism of Indian mythology. Think Wayang Kulit Hunger Force, Ramayanabillies, or, if you will, Robot Chicken Tikka Masala. Yum.
In her first feature-length film, director/writer/producer/animator Nina Paley cycles through half a dozen visual styles — from imitations of classical Indian painting to collage to hand-drawn doodles — and nearly as many narrative layers to tell two intertwined break-up stories, one legendary and one very personal. But not all of the dishes in this thali are equally appetizing. The titular blues songs, while good in theory, get as old as they actually are (1920s) pretty fast. And while every frame is intelligently composed and beautifully drawn, scenes often seem static, as if Paley were still working more in the methodical idiom of her previous field, comic strips, than in the kinetic language of animation. But given the plot of the Ramayana, maybe less action is a good thing.
Sita, a Hindu goddess and one of the stars of the Sanskrit epic poem, “The Ramayana,” gets most of the screen time, as the impossibly loyal wife of the blue-skinned archery master Rama. She’s really hot, so she naturally gets kidnapped by a lustful-yet-gentlemanly demon king. After a magic flying monkey airlift attempt and an epic and blood battle, Rama rescues her and then demonstrates how happy he is by setting her on fire to ensure that her lotus blossom remained free from any demon raita. She passes the test and he takes her back, knocks her up, then exiles her just to be sure nobody starts any cuckold rumors about him. She raises their sons in exile, prays to him every day, and, eventually, gets eaten by the Earth to prove to him, once and for all, that she had been loyal.
Got all that?
It’s atop this grandiose elephant of a breakup that Paley piggybacks her own story. She packs up her comfortable life in San Francisco to follow her then-husband, who had moved to India several months earlier for a job, only to be broken up with in an email while she was away on a business trip.
It’s tragic, sure, but Paley skillfully avoids comparing her own martyrdom with that of legends. (Wise choice, since Paley, I hope, was never kidnapped and lit on fire.) As we learn towards the film’s end, Paley found comfort reading “The Ramayana” post-breakup, and Sita’s story is undoubtedly important to her. But layered into the multiple styles and narrative that piece together the Sita storyline, Paley’s own breakup tale becomes simply one of the many perspectives in the film’s composite take on this epic, a more somber version of the Indonesian shadow puppets who argue over the finer details of the plot and the morality of unconditional love. And, with its admirably progressive Creative Commons license, which gives anybody permission to copy, archive, show, broadcast, remix, and even publish and sell the film, Paley has made explicit that her take on Sita, while incredibly entertaining, is just as variation on a breakup story that, for better or worse, anyone can make her own.