While nosing around the IMDb page for The Guru, I discovered that one of the dancers featured in the faux-Bollywood film clips also provided the speaking voice for the title character in Sita Sings the Blues (2008). This then led me to the discovery that the film is available to download for free (for reasons relating to music rights), in various formats via the official website. So that’s what I done.
Nina Paley’s animated extravaganza is an irreverent reimagining of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana (aka “Exploits of Rama”), which tells the story of how the Hindus’ ideal man, Rama, rescued his wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana, the ten-headed King of Lanka, with the aid of Hanuman the Monkey King. Instead of a straight adaptation of the events described in this ancient, venerated text, Paley chose to intercut several different narrative strands, in contrasting animation styles: First up are the “classical” sections, featuring dialogue from the Ramayana, enacted using painted figures of the characters, in the 18th Century Rajput stylee… then there are the “discourse” sections, where three silhouetted shadow puppets chat about the story, in an unscripted, humorous fashion, and attempt to explain it for the audience as best they can… then there are the “musical” sections that give the film its name, where Sita’s feelings are expressed via the songs of 1920s American jazz singer, Annette Hanshaw… then there are the “modern” sections, in which Paley recounts the breakdown of her own marriage, to provide a more contemporary parallel for the main plot.
Personally, I found those latter sequences to be a little weak, and didn’t even realise they were supposed to be autobiographical until I read the Wikipedia page after the fact. I like the idea behind them very much, but felt they were a little too thin and sketchy to have much emotional impact. In a hypothetical money-no-object remake, I think they might work better as live-action shorts, with more time spent getting to know (and care about) the characters. While I’m on a negative tip, I’d also say that I sometimes found the animation to be a little flat and repetitive… but these are very minor complaints, considering how much sweat, spirit, charm and love went into the project, and how enjoyable it is as an overall experience. The musical sections in particular are absolutely mesmerising, and often very funny to boot. It may not be the method many scholars would choose to teach the classics, but as a feminist I appreciate how these soulful, toe-tapping tunes make Sita such a sympathetic, downright adorable character, and render her otherworldly plight so much more relatable to a Western audience. I’m not surprised that the proper critics have greeted it with universal acclaim… it’s just a shame that Paley isn’t in a position to enjoy any sort of financial remuneration for her inspiring efforts and achievements.
Meanwhile, the dancer I mentioned earlier is Reena Shah… who also served as the “dance model” and choreographer for the film, as well as lending her vocals to an original track titled “Agni Pariksha (Sita’s Fire)”. According to her official bio, Shah is a multidisciplinary artist and “modern renaissance woman”, born and raised in New Jersey… and, besides helping to choreograph The Guru, and playing keyboards in a rock band with her husband, she’s also contributed to Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Coo!