In 2002, Nina Paley got dumped by her husband, over email. But, instead of reaching for the nearest bottle of Prozac, Paley began to sketch. The result: Sita Sings the Blues, an animated retelling of the Ramayan and of Paley’s own break-up, set to the 1920s jazz of Annette Hanshaw. Sita Sings the Blues won a special mention at Berlinale 2008 and, in the happy flush of that news, Paley spoke to Lounge about directing, animating and producing “the greatest break-up story ever told”:
What exactly happened during that infamous email break-up with your husband?
My husband and I were living in Thiruvananthapuram, and I took a business trip to New York, where King Features Syndicate was launching my comic strip, The Hots. That is when my husband sent me an email confirming that he would prefer me not to return. It was actually a series of emails because he was having a hard time saying it. But, when the bomb finally dropped, I really did scream out loud—a moment I tried to recapture in the film.
What aspects of that incident inspired Sita Sings the Blues?
In Thiruvananthapuram, I read my first Ramayan, the Amar Chitra Katha version. I was puzzled and somewhat appalled that Sita was considered a heroine. She seemed so submissive—a terrible role model. But, I was intrigued and wanted to understand why Sita and Ram were so revered. So, I started reading other versions. That is when I discovered (that) the Uttara Kandam (the last seven sections of the epic that detail the life of Ram and Sita after they return from exile) is simply left out of many editions, which was even more intriguing. It made me want to read more versions.
It was in the middle of this that I took the trip to New York and received the fateful email. So, Sita and Ram were very much on my mind when that happened. And, suddenly, I was in a world of pain, and my understanding of Sita turned 180 degrees. I didn’t understand why my husband had dumped me, or why I still loved him and wanted him back, but apparently Valmiki was writing about such things 3,000 years ago.
Why the music of Annette Hanshaw?
After my husband dumped me, I couldn’t return to Thiruvananthapuram, or San Francisco, where our apartment was sublet. So, I was homeless. I ended up sleeping on the sofa of record collector Sherwin Dunner, who possessed many original Hanshaw records. I was completely grief-addled, absolutely miserable. I felt I had lost everything, my mind was consumed with my own break-up and the Ramayan, and then I heard Hanshaw’s Mean to Me.
I became obsessed with her music because it also seemed to express what I was feeling. It was obvious that those blues and torch songs were telling the same story as Sita’s in the Ramayan. That story of heartbreak is primal and universal.
The Ramayan is said to be one of those “universal” epics, but what sort of cultural challenges did you face when you began working on the film?
Only other people’s bigotry. Even a story that is thousands of years old, that is retold by people of many different religions—Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist—and has inspired questions and critiques from the beginning, even this story is claimed as (the) property of tiny political groups. I, too, was fearful, as a good, liberal pasty American, of transgressing propriety, using something that wasn’t “mine” because I didn’t grow up with it.
What suggestions would you have for someone setting out to fund and promote a project almost exclusively online?
I didn’t fund my project almost exclusively online. I funded it primarily myself, by doing freelance work and pouring everything I had into the project. I also received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2006. The money I raised online, technically, only covered a small portion of the film’s overall cost. But, symbolically, it means much more to me. I didn’t set out to get money from my viewers, I just wanted to show them what I was working on. So, my advice is: Don’t view your audience as moneybags. Love them, respect them, and be open to receiving the love they give you, whatever form it takes.
So, is Ram the complete man, the “poorna purush”, as he is called? Or does that sort of man not even exist in mythology?
I have seen Ram commonly described as the “ideal man”, and Sita, the “ideal woman”. Here is the definition of “ideal” from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:
1. existing as an archetypal idea
2 a: existing as a mental image or in fancy or imagination only; broadly: lacking practicality; b: relating to or constituting mental images, ideas or conceptions.
So, yes, Ram and Sita are “ideal”: they are archetypes. That is not the same as being desirable role models. To me, they represent extreme aspects of what human beings are, not what they should be. Ram and Sita are both divine and human, perfect and flawed. Like us.