Sita Sings the Blues and Aseem Chhabra Opens Up

by E. Nina Rothe

Some films remain with us because of the story they tell on screen. Others we connect with deep in our hearts because of what the content means to us, personally. And then there are those films that are poignant because of their background, the goings-on behind the scenes, which we just happen to know about.

Nina Paley's animated feature Sita Sings the Blues is a wonderful combination of all three for me. The story is based on the epic Indian tale of the Ramayana, focusing on the love triangle between Rama, his virtuous wife Sita and the evil Ravana who lusts after Sita and kidnaps her, for her beauty. Ravana wants to make Sita his wife, but she manages to hold out just long enough for Rama to find them and he kills Ravana in an ensuing war, aided by the monkey god Hanuman. When Sita finally finds herself back with Rama, he proceeds to doubt her virtuousness - himself guilty of that typical middle class deal breaker "What will people think?!"

For the emotional connection, well there's the wonderfully poignant true side story of Paley's own disintegrating marriage and the effect that has on both her and her cats. As she tries to understand her husband's inexplicable behavior while dealing with their relationship long distance, she naturally morphs into the legendary heroine of the tale she is telling. And I absolutely adore her use of torch songstress Annette Henshaw - making "Sita Sings the Blues" a due tribute to old timey musicals - and the sidekick trio of shadow puppets who are in charge of lightening up the storyline from time to time and adding their own, beautifully spoken pearls of wisdom.

Finally, it was impossible for me to forget all about the troubles Nina Paley has seen, for this film. Lets forget for a moment about her marriage breaking up, her savings all going into this arduous project and years of her life being spent trying to produce, create and find distribution for this project. But then comes the issue of copyright. Because the film contains more than a dozen songs by Ms. Henshaw, whose rights are now owned by various record companies, Paley has gone through hell and back in terms of obtaining the copyrights. She finally simply donated the film to us, the viewing public, by streaming it for free on the website of Channel Thirteen - public TV, among others. Yes, you read right, go to the link above and watch it for free. It's a shame what red tape can do, but in this case, the audience comes out the winner for it...

Before I leave you with a short interview featuring Aseem Chhabra, a well respected
independent journalist based in NYC who provides the voice for one of the witty and indispensable shadow puppets, I would not be doing this piece about the film justice if I didn't point out a little indulgence: "Sita Sings the Blues" merchandise, which include beautiful T-shirts, totes, mugs and even a wall clock! Hey, I own a tank top myself and it's a wonderful conversation starter... Now onto more serious matters with Aseem.

ENR: What are your thoughts about the word Bollywood?

AC: I have no issues with the "B" word. It has become a globally recognized brand. It was first used by an Indian film producer, a couple of decades ago, but since then it is mostly the only word used to describe the Hindi language commercial cinema. It is in dictionaries and elsewhere. I know there are actors in Bombay (now I do have trouble with the name Mumbai -- I prefer Bombay) who consider it to be derogatory, placing Indian commercial films secondary to Hollywood. But Bollywood, the word, is not going anywhere!

ENR: What do you look for in a film? Any favorites?

AC: My favorite films are those that combine the art and commercial genres -- Omkara was one of my favorite films in the past few years. I liked Johnny Gaddar, Mithya, Khoya Khoya Chand (some parts of it) and especially Chak De India!
But then often there are moments even in weak films that give me joy -- a couple of songs in Fanah made me smile. I like the depiction of romance in Bollywood films -- moments in DDLJ still give me joy!

ENR: How do you feel about Indian cinema being looked at as a trendsetter?

AC: I am not sure about Hindi films as trendsetters -- because often Hindi films are imitating (or directly lifting) stories from Hollywood and Asian films. I have a friend who says that
Bollywood is like a sponge -- it absorbs everything from eveyrwhere! Taking Othello and transforming it into Omkara was a work of a genius! Or taking A League of Their Own (Tom Hanks film) and making a Chak De India is good cinema :) But mostly I think the best Hindi films are those that approach stories in a unique way.

As an aside, when I was a teenager growing up in India, I would take fashion tips from Bollywood films. I remember making my mom knit me a scarf similar to the one Rishi Kapoor wore in Bobby. But now I get my fashion sense from the GAP!

Images courtesy of Nina Paley and Aseem Chhabra


  1. Great post, Nina! I love those stills from the film. Wow. Breathtaking.

    The red-tape of obtaining rights to all the songs is rather wearying, but it's hard when a song is so integral to a plotline and the filmmaker can't do without it.

    And I love this quote from your interview:

    'Often there are moments even in weak films that give me joy.' What a perfect way of putting it, Aseem.

  2. Terrific posts! Love your description of the film. I am definitely going to watch it.

    I can relate to Nina Paley's troubles - it is so hard when you're working on a project that you put your heart and soul into and you come up against the powers that be - in this case copyright issues. Sometimes it's easier to just hire a composer to create the same feeling of a particular artist - or song - a lot of filmmakers do that - but if you want the authentic songs - it can break the bank or in this case - tie you up in red tape knots. Even though Paley wasn't able to get distribution - the more people watch the movie the better it'll be for Paley's next project.

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