“Sita Sings the Blues,” Nina Paley’s delightfully subversive feminist musical version of the “Ramayana,” spans continents and millennia in parallel stories of two wives being unfairly dumped, one in the American autobiographical present, the other in the mythical Indian past. Punctuated with classic bluesy ballads mouthed by a highly stylized Betty Boop-ish “Sita” and sung by ’20s jazz icon Annette Hanshaw via vintage 78s, Paley’s feature, along with Bill Plympton’s “Idiots & Angels,” constitutes an irrefutable argument for classic 2-D animation as a viable, vibrant low-budget arthouse medium for adults.
Paley’s real-life abandonment by her man, who traveled to India for a job and shortly thereafter fell out of love with her, serves as inspiration for both parts of the film.
Paley uses three very different animation styles for her two-pronged tale of woe.
The present-day story is rendered in the sketchy loopy hand-drawn style of her popular “Nina’s Adventures” or “The Hots” comicstrips. Though the autobiographical wrap-around narrative takes up considerably less screentime than does the exotic saga of Sita, the dual storyline exponentially increases the relevance of both plots and supplies a clever structuring device.
An intermediary animation layer acquaints the uninitiated with the finer points of the “Ramayana” legend, compositing maps, excerpted texts, reproductions of paintings and various other graphics. The history is introduced and lengthily mulled over in wittily written, brilliantly acted fashion by three Indian-accented voices, represented onscreen by a trio of Indonesian shadow-puppet cutouts.
But the bulk of the action is conveyed through a third, dominant art style, wherein ’20s ballads are crooned by Sita, designed as a smooth, impossibly curvaceous assemblage of arcs and circle-shapes rendered in Flash animation.
Though Sita possesses a limited range of expression and exists on a flat plane with little possibility of turning her head or body, Paley varies the camera angles and richly colored backgrounds so frequently and cleverly and throws in so many well-judged sight-gags that interest never flags. Add to that the benefits bestowed on the soundtrack through magnificent standards by the likes of Tin Pan Alley greats Gus Kahn and Yip Harburg sung in the inimitable voice of Hanshaw.
Songs sometimes function as understated commentary on the action, as Sita intones “Mean to Me” while her beloved Rama cavalierly dropkicks her into a blazing funeral pyre to test her purity. Other tunes provide ironic counterpoint, as when a kidnapped Sita is liberated by scimitar-wielding monkey warriors and breaks into an upbeat “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” while the decapitated heads and limbs of her captors pile up in time to the music.
Finding dubious solace in the thought that the same double-standards and stacked sexual politics that plague women today are ingrained in the very fabric of ancient folklore, Paley sustains a consistently funny, sometimes even self-deprecatory comic tone. Though admittedly never plumbing any real emotional depths, her plays with format are so extreme that the film contains a five-minute “intermission” that allows her multi-armed and octuple-headed figures to sneak off for soft drinks and popcorn.