Sunday, March 15, 2009

NYICFF: Sita Sings the Blues

Dumping someone over e-mail—how lame is that is? Self-taught animator Nina Paley found out first-hand, when her jerk of a partner ended their relationship after accepting a supposedly temp gig in India. At least the experience provided the seeds of inspiration for her debut feature, Sita Sings the Blues (trailer here), which screens this weekend as part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The life of Rama deeply inspired the Muslim-born Hindi poet Kabir, whose work has been stirringly set to music by the ecstatic Sufi Qawwal singers. To tell the story of Rama’s long-suffering wife Sita, Paley enlists the voice of Annette Hanshaw, the popular vocalist of the 1920’s and early 1930’s, who was backed by most of the top jazzmen allowable in her era (meaning white), which even included Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers. Though she retired early, her playful, bluesy style and her impish sign-off, “that’s all,” have maintained Hanshaw’s cult-following over the decades. Her songs of heartache now give voice to Sita, who despite being the Earthly incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, was still done grievously wrong by her man.

Blues retells the parts of the Ramayana (the great Sanskrit epic), which pertain to Sita, from her perspective. She follows her husband into exile when his father is forced to banish him. Their time in the literal wilderness is actually quite happy, until the fateful day King Ravana of Lanka is manipulated into kidnapping her. As we see Ram and Sita devastated by their rough separation, we also witness the contemporary parallel story of Nina and her husband Dave. She is also distressed by the considerable distance between them, but for him—not so much. The stressful time spent apart would ultimately undo both couples.

Paley frequently switches gears visually, employing a wide variety of animation styles for each portion of her narrative. Sita and Rama come to life both as ornate figures inspired by Indian classical painting and more whimsical cartoon figures for Hanshaw’s musical interludes. Nina and Dave are simpler—not quite Terrance and Phillip of South Park, but nowhere near as sophisticated as the various Sitas and Ramas. Giving it all structure and context for western audiences are Paley’s narrator friends, represented in stylized profiles. While their improvised commentary might confuse as much as it illuminates, Paley’s accompanying animation is frequently hilarious, even approaching brilliance.

Paley’s film is chocked full of clever bits of business and some sharp dialogue. However, its finest moments come when marrying the music of Hanshaw with the ancient, exotic tragedy of Sita, with her rendition of “Mean to Me” being a particular standout. Indeed, the blues are truly universal. Though it has a very grown-up sensibility, aside from the occasional cursing, it is by-and-large appropriate for audiences of all ages. Enormously entertaining and consistently inventive, Blues is the best animated film produced in recent years—far superior to anything released by Disney or Pixar this decade. A highlight of the festival, it screens again Sunday (3/15) at the DGA Theater.