Friday, May 22, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues / **** (NR)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Narrator #1: Aseem Chhabra
Narrator #2: Bhavana Nagulapally
Narrator #3: Manish Acharya
Sita: Reena Shah
Dave/Dasharatha/Ravana/Dhobi/Valmiki: Sanjiv Jhaveri
Surphanaka: Pooja Kumar
Rama: Debargo Sanyal
Mareecha/Hanuman: Alladin Ullah
Luv/Kush: Nitya Vidyasagar
Nina: Nina Paley
Kaikeyi: Deepti Gupta

And featuring the songs of Annette Hanshaw

Your Name Here presents a film written and directed by Nina Paley. Based on the Ramayana. Running time: 82 min. No MPAA Rating.

Roger Ebert suggests in his review of the animated movie “Sita Sings the Blues” that he wasn’t initially enthusiastic at the prospect of watching a “version of the epic Indian tale of the Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw.” When I first heard of the film through a blog review written by Ebert last fall, I was quite intrigued. Perhaps that’s because Ebert was gushing praises about this film he at first questioned. I was lucky enough that Ebert invited the film to his 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival, which I attended last month.

Like Ebert, I was unfamiliar with the Ramayana—a story that’s said to be known by every school child in India. I was also unfamiliar with the seductive and suggestive vocal styling of the once popular jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw. I was in for a treat.

Writer, director, producer Nina Paley hails from Ebert’s hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Ill. But her feature film debut follows her all the way to both modern and ancient India in a surprisingly autobiographical way with animation that recalls “the greatest breakup story ever told” and parallels it with her own journey through divorce. In spanning this broad time range and the diverse cultures of India and America, Paley utilizes a variety of animation styles and storytelling techniques to tell two stories.

The modern sequences employ a herky-jerky style of animation that reflects the scattered emotions of Paley’s failing marriage. Some of the Ramayana story is depicted with traditional Indian drawings animated like pasted cutouts, while the main thrust of the story is told with bright bold images and musical numbers set to Hanshaw’s sexy vocals. And the entire affair is narrated by three Indian-accented shadow puppets who argue and debate throughout as to just how the story is supposed to go.

The three arguing narrators seem to get at much of the essence of what Paley is attempting to do by adapting this fable to the screen. They bicker and nit pick about certain details of the story, often realizing they don’t really know exactly what they’re talking about. Everybody has her own version of this story and Paley finds a unique and quite brilliant way to tell it through animation with Annette Hanshaw’s songs. She also finds the story in her own life with her failed marriage and surprisingly charismatic cats.

But just what is the story of the Ramayana? Well, I didn’t know it going in and was still quite absorbed by it, but I suppose I should attempt my own little version in the spirit of the film. I’ll leave the bickering points to those joyous shadow puppet narrators, but basically Prince Rama is exiled from his kingdom and his loyal wife, Sita, joins him. Once in their wilderness sanctuary, Sita is kidnapped by a lustful (and occasionally 10-headed) king. An army of monkeys helps Rama rescue her; but once they are reunited, Rama decides Sita is tainted despite passing an absurd test of her purity.

While that doesn’t sound so blasé, nothing I’ve written conveys the freshness and vitality contained within this movie. There is so much humor, so much artistry, so much depth portrayed here that it seems a shame for Paley to just give it away for free. But that she has done, an artistic donation to the world via the Internet. Of course, people who visit Paley’s site are encouraged to donate money for the free downloads, but admission is not required.

Considering that Paley had to pay some $50,000 for the rights to use Hanshaw’s recordings, I’m sure she would greatly appreciate any money audiences are willing to pay. And considering how much those recordings add to this pleasurable gem, any expense is worth it. While I—like Paley—agree the big screen is the best place to see “Sita Sings the Blues” (a schedule of theatrical screenings is also available on the website), there is no movie currently playing in wide release that is as enjoyable as this one playing on PCs and Macs anywhere.

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