Sita Sings The Blues — A phenomenal retelling of the epic Ramayana through animation, 1920s jazz songs, contemporary commentary and one woman’s inspiration

A few months ago, a friend of mine suggested I see an animated movie called Sita Sings The Blues — he even went so far as to bring a Netflix DVD over and leave it in the temple where I live.  “Just send it back once you’ve seen it,” he told me.

To be honest, I didn’t feel very attracted to watch the movie.  My friend had mumbled something about, “It’s really great, it’s the Ramayana with 1920s blues songs… and all the characters from the epic tale are there..!”  and somehow the description sounded lame, over all, so I passed on it.

I think we sent the DVD back to Netflix, unseen.

Sita, Rama, and Hanuman

A scene from Sita Sings The Blues

Sometimes, when the divine wants to show us something that we are persistently ignoring, it sends a few different signals.  (I’ve really learned to pay attention to my own inner resistance to things; if I’m highly resistant for no apparent reason, it’s probably exactly the thing I should be doing!)

So, some months go by and another friend mentions Sita Sings The Blues.  I shine it on by telling myself I’m too busy to watch it.

And then, last week, the original friend showed up again, this time in an extremely persistent email, with links. “You really should see this, please, please, read these reviews!” he wrote.

Something internal clicked, and then I started clicking (externally!) on the different links in the email, which I’m including here so you can have the same joyful discovery that I did:

Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun Times

SF Film Critics Special Citation

And then I found this link, allowing me to watch Sita Sings The Blues on my laptop:

My husband and I only intended to watch a few minutes of it, just to see what the film is like…  and wound up dumbstruck, speechless, and often in tears (either from laughter or bittersweet sadness), watching the entire 80-minute show online.

It turns out that Sita Sings The Blues is profound;  a compelling, original, dynamic, beautiful, hilariously funny and deeply sacred retelling of the Ramayana with surprising touches.

Yes, it is a cartoon. And a cartoon with several different styles, based on the way the story is woven through the characters of Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana, as well as a group of contemporary Indian commentators, chatting about the details of the Ramayana… and including a parallel story, that of the heartbroken Nina, the autobiographical character of the film’s creator, whose boyfriend gets a job in India and ultimately seems to prefer India to her.

Yes, it is a musical — but of an unusual sort.  Sita lip-synchs songs from a ’20s and ’30s American blues and jazz singer named Annette Hanshaw, who was in peak form during those days, singing mostly sad songs of love and loss and the misunderstandings between men and women. The songs perfectly narrate the events of the Ramayana, and bring a poignant, distinctly American but also universal voice of a woman’s heartbreak to life.

Yes, it is a beautifully redemptive depiction of the Ramayana.  And quirky. There’s something about seeing the Indian poster art of the divine figures coming to life that is — uncanny, powerful, archetypal.  Its color and vibrance touches something deep within the human heart and psyche and sense of divine connection — even for people who have no exposure, previously, to the Ramayana and have literally never heard the story before!  (See the link to Roger Ebert’s review of the film, above, for one such account.)

For me, one of the most incredible realizations while watching the movie (and there are many!) is the powerful ability of the ancient Vedas and Puranas to touch the heart of any human being alive today, anywhere on the planet.

The odds of a heartbroken American woman in New York City stumbling upon a copy of the Ramayana while in the throes of a horrific heartbreak — and finding relief, healing, and ultimately inspiration from Valmiki’s account of the events of Tret Yuga — well, the odds are so slim I’d say it’s next to impossible.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened.  Valmiki’s eternally sublime account reached across the yugas to soothe an American lady in her grief…  and, as the divine is wont to do, found a way to inspire her to use her considerable skills and share the glory of the Ramayana with a whole new audience.

I hope that you will be just as amazed and appreciative of the genius of film-maker Nina Paley, and this unusual approach to a profound classic, as I was.

Sita Sings The Blues is a film I will watch over and over again, not only because it’s visually stunning and an inspiring story, but because it’s like stepping into another universe for a little while, and drinking deeply at the well of timelessness, courtesy of the Rishi Valmiki, Rama, Sita and Hanuman.

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