Sita Sings the Blues

My friend has been encouraging me to watch Sita Sings the Blues.

Sita mourns her privation from her husband and his callous behaviour towards her.

In an episode taken from the director’s own life, animator Nina Paley starts the film living happily in a San Francisco apartment with her husband and cat. Her husband then accepts the offer of a six-month contract working in Trivandrum, India, and moves there alone to take up the position. After several months of very little contact, he calls to inform his wife that the contract has been extended.

Bewildered by his callous indifference to their separation, Nina sublets their apartment, leaves their beloved cat behind and joins her husband in India. Upon her arrival he appears deeply unenthusiastic to be reunited and demonstrates neither affection nor sexual interest. A while later, Nina flies to a meeting in New York, where she receives a brief e-mail from her husband telling her that their relationship is over. Sad and alone, she stays in New York, finding comfort in a new cat and her study of the Ramayana.

Poor Sita – stolen from her home, threatened and ultimate rejected by the one she stood by so staunchly.

Aided by the monkey prince Hanuman, Rama eventually discovers Sita’s location and brings the monkey army to assist in her rescue. Ravana is slain and Sita restored to her husband, although he expresses serious doubts concerning her fidelity during her confinement. She submits to a trial by fire, a test of her purity; upon throwing herself into the flames, she is immediately rescued by the gods, who all proclaim her devotion and fidelity.

In spite of this, Rama has no compassion. She is sent into the wilderness to bare the burden of motherhood alone. In the end, Rama, realizes too late the gravity of his mistake and the pain his arrogance and lack of faith in Sita has brought.

The film’s distribution sparked an intense debate regarding the portrayal of Hindu culture in Western media and was even met with outrage by some Hindus and, according to the film-maker, a number of left-wing academics also. In April 2009, a group called the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti started a petition calling for a complete ban on the movie and initiation of legal action against all those who have been involved in its production and marketing, believing its portrayal of the Ramayana to be offensive, with some members even going so far as to call it “a derogatory act against the entire Hindu community.” Nina Paley was surprised by the hostility, saying “I thought it might be a bit controversial, but I wasn’t fully aware of how art and artists are major targets of some right-wing nationalist groups in India. I always imagine an audience of smart, compassionate people I’d enjoy spending time with.” Aseem Chhabra, who was one of the shadow puppets in the film, said “In the last two decades, the right-wing religious forces in India — Hindu and Muslim — have become very strong, vocal and sometimes violent. But I also know that there are enough sane, balanced, liberal people in India who take art for what it is.”

Nina Paley has said that some left-wing academics have also been critical of the film, describing their position as “any white person doing a project like this is by definition racist, and it’s an example of more neocolonialism.”

In the course of all my discussions on mythology, love, and home, maybe I haven’t given Sita her due. The heart of a woman does not have a color, a history or a country.


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