Reviews of this masterpiece abound on the world wide web, almost universally in a chorus along the lines of: “this is a delightful and original piece of filmmaking blah blah blah…” Well, it is. I do not disagree in the slightest, which would normally mean I wouldn’t bother adding my voice to the chorus (I don’t sing that well)—but I can’t resist giving those of you who may not have seen it a glimpse of its fabulousness. And, by the way, if you haven’t seen it, there’s no excuse! The creative force behind the film, Nina Paley, is giving it away for free. You can even download a DVD version (which I prefer to watching it online).
She combines the ancient tale of The Ramayana with her own love-story-gone-sour, adding to the mix three Indonesian shadow puppets who bring a wry and witty 21st century point of view to the 3000-year-old story; and a pastiche of images, sound and animation that could be overwhelming were it not so superbly handled. Eleven songs by 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw punctuate the film, all pictured on Sita herself. The rest of the music is absolutely wonderful too, with Indian and western musicians contributing a mixture of influences.
The film is full of little details which add up to an amusing, poignant and feminist take on age-old universal issues: love, heartbreak and happiness. We meet Nina and Dave, a happily married couple living with their cat Lexi in San Francisco. Anyone who has ever owned a cat (or has friends who own cats) can relate to this:
Enter the shadow puppet Greek chorus, talking about The Ramayana and its origins and quibbling amicably over names and dates. They all agree that Rama’s exile from his father’s kingdom of Ayodhya was at the behest of one of the king’s wives, Kaikeyi, who had nursed the king back to health from an illness (thus gaining his gratitude in the form of “you can have anything you ask for”). I love the sexy nurse uniform scribbled onto her image.
Sita insists on accompanying Rama into exile, since “a woman’s place is next to her husband.” In the forest, they indulge in a little romance; at the same time Rama kills off a bunch of evil demons plaguing the holy men who reside there, all to the strains of Hanshaw’s sultry “Moanin Low.”
In San Francisco, Nina sees Dave off at the airport, to a six-month work assignment in India.
The shadow puppets now discuss the demon king Ravana, and how his only fault seems to have been that he kidnapped Sita; he was otherwise reputed to be well-educated and a faithful worshipper of “the right gods.” One of them points out that history instead has turned him into “Mogambo!”:
“He lives on an island also!”
In Lanka, Ravana’s sister is trying to incite him into violence against Rama. When Ravana is unmoved by the horrors inflicted in the forest on the demons, she tempts him with a description of Rama’s lovely wife instead:
There is just So Much Goodness here.
I won’t go into more detail about the story since most of you are probably familiar with it. Ms. Paley draws parallels along the way between Sita’s travails and the breakup of her own marriage; suffice it to say that the treatment is absolutely sublime. Even the mish-mash of graphic styles works beautifully when it could have easily become messy and distracting.
The shadow puppet narration is hilarious and pointed. The puppets are voiced by three Indian friends of Ms. Paley, who recorded their unscripted discussion of The Ramayana one afternoon (one of them is Manish Acharya, director of Loins of Punjab Presents). At one point the three wonder aloud why Sita didn’t leave Lanka with Hanuman when he found her, and conclude that perhaps she was a “bloodthirsty woman” with issues.
Annette Hanshaw’s songs are beautiful—I’ve never been a huge fan of jazz, but these make me want to rush out and buy some of her recordings. Sita’s sensuously animated rendition of them carry the story arc to perfection: a woman in love, a woman scorned, a woman heartbroken.
There is a mish-mash of musical styles here too, but again they work in harmony. One of my favorite songs is a sing-along with Rama’s abandoned twins, Luv and Kush, called “Rama’s Great,” which is picturized filmi-style on village women (and their cows):
Rama’s ill-treatment of Sita, and Nina’s by her ex-husband Dave, are held up to well-deserved scorn, but the tone never becomes bitter or self-pitying. Acidic, maybe! but not bitter. In the end, it’s very much a film about surviving pain and finding happiness.
It’s also interesting to read the copyright issues which she explains clearly on her site, and at her blog (links above). As much as her songs make me want more of Annette Hanshaw, Paley’s battles over licensing rights make me not want to pay the owners a dime (somewhat like Ultra!), so I’m at a bit of an impasse over it all. In any case, I am very very happy to “own” this film. You will be too.