Ditched by her husband, directing novice Nina Paley turned her heartache into an animated feature, and earned a thumbs-up from Roger Ebert.
Author WILLA PASKIN Photography COURTESY OF NINA PALEY
IN 2005, NINA PALEY’S HUSBAND dumped her by email from India. Paley, a 40-year-old animator who now lives in New York City, was distraught—but she was not, she soon found, without some recourse. She spent the next three years writing, directing, animating and editing a retort on her computer.
The vividly crafted result, Sita Sings the Blues, is a unique animated feature that combines Paley’s own romantic woes with the Indian tale of the Ramayana— a 3,000-year-old epic Sanskrit poem that’s as familiar to South Asians as Bible stories are to Westerners—and the songs of a mostly forgotten jazz-age vocalist, Annette Hanshaw. Or, as Paley puts it, it’s an “animated, musical, personal interpretation of the Ramayana set to American jazz and blues from the 1920s.” You know, one of those.
To Paley’s mind, the Ramayana, in which Hindu goddess Sita is forsaken by her husband, Rama, but remains eternally faithful, is “the greatest breakup story every told.” And it spoke to her. “When my husband dumped me,” she says, “it was freaky how insightful that story became.” Soon after the dissolution of her marriage, she heard a recording of Hanshaw at a friend’s house. “I was in this state,” Paley explains, “and the songs just felt so true.” Somehow, she realized, the three elements belonged together.
The result defies easy explanation. Sita seamlessly meshes multiple styles of animation and storylines, cutting from jerky, hand-drawn scenes from Paley’s own marriage to Flash-animated sequences of a wide-eyed, Betty Boop–esque Sita singing Hanshaw’s songs and then to shadow-puppet sequences in which Paley’s friends colloquially retell the Ramayana. Coincidentally, Paley grew up in Urbana, Illinois, Roger Ebert’s hometown. That might explain why, when a DVD of Sita showed up in his mail unbidden, he decided to take a look. The powerhouse critic called the film “astonishingly original,” adding, “I am enchanted.”
Despite that enthusiastic thumbs up, after struggling to release the film through the usual channels, Paley has opted to distribute it herself. DVDs of Sita are available for $20, but the entire film is also streaming for free online. The idea, she explains, is for Sita to find the widest possible audience. “This is a story most people can empathize with,” Paley says. “You’re really lucky if you can’t relate to having your heart broken.”
Sita Sings the Blues is available to stream or download at www.sitasingstheblues.com
What else to watch on the go in July
Former Friend Lisa Kudrow stars in an amusing improvisational comedy series as Dr. Fiona Wallice, a supremely self-involved psychotherapist who sees her patients for three-minute sessions, via webcam.
Online at www.lstudio.com/web-therapy
The third season of Mad Men, AMC’s critically beloved show about hard-drinking, chain-smoking, impeccably groomed advertising men, starts in late summer. Time for a review course in all the office politics, mysterious back stories and skinny ties from last season.
Out on DVD July 14
Harvard Beats Yale
It may be the most triumphant tie in all of sports: the epic 1968 football match in which Harvard scored 16 points against the undefeated Yale in the game’s final 42 seconds. Four decades later, an enormously entertaining documentary tells the tale.
Out on DVD July 28
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