Bicycle Thieves – A closer look

enzo_staiola_in_bicycle_thieves

I was impressed by this legendary Italian movie when I had watched it the first time several years ago. Recently, I had the opportunity to watch this again but with a live commentary anchored by a director and teacher-founder of a film school. I should say that my appreciation for the movie has gone one notch above. I love these kind of deep discussions and ‘beyond-the-screen’ information – a real treat for cinephiles; might sound an overdose for someone who just wants to ‘watch it – forget it’.

To start with, did you know these? Continue reading

Live TV news beyond mainstream media

 

news_reader

I have always been curious about ‘behind the scenes’ activities that need to happen in order to create a movie. Recently, I had a chance to be part of a meetup group that explained the high level process behind production and broadcasting. Not the big screen but the small bro TV.

Hmm.. I realized it is a different world altogether. Continue reading

Book: Movie Awards by Tom O’Neil

Oscar

Image by Lincolnblues/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Award shows of the glam industry usually garner an abundance of media coverage. There is no dearth of articles, interview and videos when it comes to the nominees, prognosis of winners, opinion polls, public frenzy and the actual ceremonies. Unfortunately, it is not the case when we try to find some good literature on the awards themselves – about their origin, history, methodology and what they look for.

The book Movie Awards by Tom O’ Neil attempts to unearth both the above aspects. Continue reading

Recent international success of Danish TV serials

I have always been a fan of academic learning. There is no substitute to it. I believe some sort of education should keep intersecting our life every now and then. Why is that we should complete all our education in the initial years and do all the work for the rest of our life? What if one realizes pretty late in life that s/he should have pursued a different stream of college education. Continue reading

Book: Awake in the dark

Undoubtedly, there is an element of ‘opinion’ ingrained in every human being and consequently each one of us have an opinion on the movies that we see. What separates something as mere opinion versus a good movie review can lead to an introspection beyond this post. In this milieu, one would acknowledge how tough it can be to be recognized as an acclaimed film critic or reviewer. Roger Ebert is one who has created a remarkable name for himself in this role. Though he had been writing for Chicago Sun-Times for decades Roger Ebert is a name that a common man (or fan?) would easily recognize him for the excellent reviews and thoughts around the tinsel world. “Awake in the dark” is one of his best-selling books. A good read if you are someone who follows cinema (mainly Hollywood) and must read if you aspire to be a reviewer. This blog is a peep in to that book.

“Awake in the dark” can be segregated in to few key sections.

Reviews

You will find an abundance of film reviews, mainly from Hollywood. Roger Ebert has listed his “best” film of the year that spans from 1967 to 2005. One can find reviews starting from Bonnie and Clyde through Nashville, Cries and Whispers, The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, God Father, Good Fellas until The Crash. The primary reason for me to buy this book was to indulge in this section. I must state that in the end I wasn’t fascinated by this section as much as few others in the book. Probably, I had very high expectations to see thing more ‘filmy’. If you view this from the standpoint that these reviews were written for a broader audience in a daily newspaper then any reservation you have will vanish. Imagine someone churning out quality review on films non-stop for 40+ years. The message for an average fan and holistic view are stand out aspects of his reviews. Most of the reviews are as written at the time, essentially retaining the immediate experience.

Beyond Hollywood movies, he has included few documentaries and foreign films too. But instead of calling them as the “best” he marks them as “selection” meaning he didn’t have to go through all those out there to pick the best.

Think Pieces

This section is the one that I enjoyed most. Most think pieces try to challenge a certain fundamental aspect of the cinema world. And that requires a lot of courage. I definitely wanted to call out two of those.

“The case for an ‘A’ rating” (1990): Hollywood then had rating categories like G, PG, PG-13, R and X. Roger Ebert highlighted that this structure basically lacks a rating in between R and X. His argument was that there are scores of films that are without sexual content (X-rating) but still intended towards mature audience. A lot of good films such as The Cook, the Thief, Her Lover, His Wife, etc. suffered because of this gap. Lack of R simply does not equate to X. One can’t deny this. And today there is this NC-17 rating to fill the case.

“A Pulitzer for movies” (1997): Tony, Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, National Book Awards are awards chosen by jury representative of that industry. But Pulitzer prize is chosen by a independent panel consisting of experts without regard for popularity,s ales or sentiment. And movies are not considered for this. His opinion is that Oscars and other grand movie awards are heavily influenced by aspects such as box-office hit, reception by general audience and sentiment Pulitzer can help to identify the best movies in a more neutral fashion. Well, may be. Though I liked the thought I wasn’t all that convinced. In fact, he himself goes on to provide a counter. In case of a book, drama or music the final product reaches the audience by and large the same way as was conceived and created by the individual (creator). In case of cinema, it is more a collective product though there can be a dominating influence by the film director.

You could read a few more like these in this section.

Interviews

If you read this section there is a good chance that you will feel become envious of Roger Ebert. At least, I did. How else would you feel about a person who got a chance to interview and interact closely with almost all the biggies of the industry during his period. Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Steven Speilberg, Lee Marvin, Paul Schrader, Robert Altman, Woody Allen and the list goes on.  Interviews and reviews are sort of different ends of a pole. For Chicago Sun-Times, he does both. He himself has cited that providing a neutral review can be very challenging if you had interviewed someone and knew more. Irrespective of that he had continued to do an amazing job until his death.

On film criticism

In this section, he has dumped all his likes and dislikes in the cinema world. He mentions about his liking towards films that have real suspense (as against shocking the audience with siren sound) and those that have villains as the protagonists, then about his favorite film personalities (Martin Scorsese, Altman, Coppola), then about select scenes (culled out from Casablanca, Singin’ in the rain, The third man). And then about how good the silent and black and white films have been. And how the home-video robbed the theater-going culture from the public. And (in a bored tone) about the questions that the reviewers are always asked (few – How many films do you watch in a day? Do you really watch a movie before writing a review? How many times do you watch a film?). In a mocking tone, he reveals that people believe in whatever you reply as answer to these!

A memo to himself and certain other critics

He concludes his book with a key message in this last section. Amidst the flooding film releases and those that are already out there, it is the duty of a good reviewer to distinguish the good ones from bad and clearly articulate as to what one can expect in watching the film.

“Awake in the dark” is probably a metaphor to imply that unlike a casual film goer, a reviewer must remain “awake” with all his senses tuned after the lights go down in the theater.

3rd place in the race is the real victory!

No I am not talking about a slow-cycling race or something of that sort. Then, how can 3rd place in any race be called as a victory? To know the answer one must watch the movie Children of Heaven by Majid Majidi (released in 1998). Every single person who watched the movie would vouch that his/ her heart pumped unabated during the climax just to know if Ali (the protagonist) will specifically secure the 3rd place in the inter-school level running race or not.  One has to really watch the movie to experience that feel. Children of Heaven is a must-watch not only for kids but also the parents.

Brother, sister and a pair of shoes – that is all to the storyline! 9 year old Ali ends up losing his sister Zahra’s only pair of shoes. Cognizant about their family’s poverty state, the siblings decide and try to handle the issue on their own. The sequence of scenes showing the plight of kids when both of them try to use Ali’s shoes for their school call for a very special applause. On one side all efforts to regain the lost shoes become futile. On the other hand, job-loss to the father makes it impossible for them to bring to their parents’ attention. It is at this juncture that an inter-school competition is announced with a 3rd prize of new pair of shoes! The end may not be what you might surmise. Humm…

The director has done an outstanding job in not only taking us to the world of children but also making us view that through their eyes. In that I think the movie gains a universal appeal. One other aspect to highlight is the manner in which the movie has captured the culture and common life in Iran so that even a foreigner could get a vivid sense of it.

Well Children of Heaven is a storyline hard to conceive and relate in a film world where popular star cast and larger-than-life action rule the box office. More so if you are from West or one of the so called developed nations.

Will sign-off with a couple of tid bits:

  • Through this movie I learnt that Persian (Iran’s major diaelect) script is read from right to left. So much for the other side of the world!
  • This movie lost the Oscar only to one of the all-time best – Life is Beautiful.

Svenska? The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

I was on an international trip recently. The ‘movies’ section of the in-flight video services was my obvious choice for time pass. Upon browsing the list there were two things that made me interested in watching this movie.

No. 1 This was listed under the language ‘Svenska’. While most other languages hit my brain as having crossed it in the past this was one was out of blue. I thought if it is listed as a regular in the flight I should learn  something about it. So ‘Svenska’ was the choice of language.
No. 2 The title of the movie was quite inviting. I believe it will be the same with most of us who chanced upon this title. Else you wouldn’t have clicked this post! In fact, it was a long one even by the standards of a ‘sentence’. For once it occurred to me that it is not always necessary to be succinct.

The movie opens with the very scene that you would imagine when you read the title. It is the eve of the 100th birthday of a still very healthy man confined to his retirement home. He gets to a point where he feels that he had gone through enough and it is time to relive his passion. And so he  escapes by jumping out of the window. What unfolds from there on is a humorous (some very good some not so) adventure series that follows his go-where-ever-life-takes-you. It is equally interlaced with some of his life’s past recollections portrayed to present the impact he had in the European politics by following his passion to ‘blow up’ things. If you are ready to throw away the absurdity of these so-called flash backs you are on course for a good entertainer. A 50 million bounty coming his way, every member of a gangster group ending up with an accident or unnatural death while  attempting to get that bounty, four others with diverse background joining as companions (lead gangster himself being one at the end), a sheriff tasked at finding the missing old man – all happening just as life goes by – makes us glued to the movie. Kudos to the screenwriter and director.
At the outset, the movie can certainly remind you of ‘Baby’s Day Out‘. Just that instead of the baby it is the old man who keeps the thugs at bay here albeit both in a hilarious and ignorant fashion. If you took a philosophical view of the film (which is hard after watching it) it will unravel the thought that as human beings we are in a constant search to satiate our passion no matter what stage or age we are in our life.

I wanted to close the post by going back to those aspects that made me choose this film. ‘Svenska’ is nothing but the Swedish language primarily spoken in Sweden and Finland. I guess it would have been a no-brainer to Westerners. And the title/ movie in itself comes as an adaptation of the debut novel by the Swedish author Jonas Jonasson.
In the end, it wasn’t a bad choice at all.

Book: My first movie: take two

“First” experience on certain milestones in life will always be special and close to our heart. First crush. First love.  First day at school.  First job.  Stephen Lowenstein (also a filmmaker) has taken a cue out of this simple yet powerful concept and applied in the dream factory. His book “My first movie: take two” is a collection of interviews with celebrated directors focusing on their first movie. It is ‘take two’ as this is a sequel to his first book which accounted for a different 20 directors. I personally chose this one because of the diverse set of directors represented across the geographies and languages.

The joy and struggle articulated through Q&As centred around a directors’ background, education, decision moments, film-making experience, etc make it a pleasant read for everyone – it doesn’t matter whether you are a film fan or an aspiring filmmaker or even an one-off reader. You will be surprised and may even wonder how some of them even made the cut. In spite of disparate paths leading to give them an identity there are certain commonalities which are seen in most of them if not all – formal education was  seldom seen as the primary reason for success, experience on several related facets such as music, writing and acting were counted to have high impact to eventually do a successful direction, extension of real-life experiences made compelling themes, instinctive shot making was preferred over storyboarding and lack of technical knowledge initially was very common. Lowenstein has treaded cautiously on the technicalities so it doesn’t throw you out as an average fan. At least, I got exposed to aspects like staging an action, the importance of location, time and space, basic camera angles, natursciks, coverage and such.

Here is a peek on what is in store from the interviews:

  1. Richard Linklater on Slacker (English/ USA/ 1991)
  • Read this interview if you thought education and money are an absolute necessity to do a film.
  • About the director: No cinema background or formal education, learnt a lot on his own and though community college, film society, books and such and believed in the power of a small start for doing anything big
  • About the movie: An unconventional independent film that revolves around people and events in a day of life in the city of Austin; made with a paltry budget of $23K!
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: Do whatever you need to in order to make your first film (mentions that he could have got arrested several times in the process).
  • A quote to note: On editing – you have to be ruthless about your own creations and ready to lose scenes like drowning babies.
  1. Richard Kelly on Donnie Darko (English/ USA/ 2001)
  • Read this interview if you thought formal film education is a bull shit.
  • About the director: Graduated from the Univ. of California, got to know the technicalities as a student, inspired and followed sci-fi/ time travel kind of movies, had sense of clarity and confidence on film career
  • About the movie: A time travel movie centred around an eccentric teenager who follows the voice he hears. A complex film that may not go down well with a simple and entertainment seeking film goer.
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: Pick those battles that you think you can win and people will respect later for that
  • A quote to note: Only shoot what is necessary. Economy is a great discipline.
  1. Alejandro Gonzalez on Amores Perros (Spanish/ Mexico/ 2000)
  • Read this interview if you thought shifting a career is difficult. Alejandro does it – not once but twice. And that too when he was at the pinnacle of success on either case.
  • About the director: Never found his formal education to be enriching, switched from a successful Radio RJ to a successful TV commercials director to successful filmmaker, sort of perfectionist and takes his time to build films
  • About the movie: Oscar nominee for the off-beat theme in which the three interlinked stories centered around a car accident are weaved in a gripping fashion
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: You shouldn’t be discouraged by the industry because if you have a good script and video camera, you can always shoot it.
  • A quote to note: Film can demand so much from you that it can kill you little by little.
  1. Takeshi Kitano on Violent Cop (Japanese/ Japan/ 1989)
  • Read this interview if you thought one should have at least watched a good deal of movies if not driven by a burning desire before becoming a filmmaker
  • About the director: Began as a renowned comedian, morphed to a TV artist and eventually a filmmaker. Started watching films only after he himself started making them. As a kid he went to see the movie The Virgin Spring by Ingmar Berman thinking it to be an erotic film!
  • About the movie: An unorthodox movie about a cop who has his own ways to deal with hoodlums and is often compared with the Dirty Harry and Bad Lieutenant.
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: None that I could pick explicitly
  • A quote to note: In the words of Kitano’s long-time collaborator – It was fashionable then for production companies to let someone like Takeshi (with publicity) to direct a film (more as marketing tool rather than focusing on the quality of films)
  1. Shekar Kapur on Masoom (Hindi/ India/ 1983)
  • Read this interview if you want to know what passion for cinema can drive you to (he threw away a high-flying career in London to return to India with an aspiration to become a filmmaker)
  • About the director: Has been very close to film circle – nephew of leading star Dev Anand, took to academia and career in London, started fighting his way out as an actor in Bollywood before becoming a filmmaker
  • About the movie: A story that pins the moral plight within the perspective of a disturbed family after a past mistake of the family head comes to light
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: 1. Dont be burdened by the need for success  2. Be instinctive
  • A quote to note: The greater the movie, the more information you compress in it and then allow the audience’s subconscious to unravel it.
  1. Emir Kusturica on Do you remember Dolly Bell? (Serbo-Croatian/ Yugoslavia/ 1981)
  • Read this interview if you want to know about someone who made the cut under Communist regime
  • About the director: Started as a footballer, then ventured in to music and eventually in to films; had formal film education in Prague
  • About the movie: A coming-of-age movie by a director who was just 26 years old; deftly crafted satire with autobiographical experiences at the core
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: know how to interpret what the actor needs to interpret.
  • A quote to note: Making film is the slowest way to commit suicide.
  1. Agnes Jaoui on Le Gout Des Autres (French/ France/ 2000)
  • Read this interview if you thought women are at best glam queens in the tinsel world
  • About the director: Had formal film education, started with writing then moved to acting and finally to directing
  • About the movie: A witty storyline that tries to punctuate the importance to come out of our pre-conceived notions to understand people better
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: Inspire confidence in actors while letting them to be free as much possible
  • A quote to note: On writing for theater – I believe that the constraints you work under can inspire creativity. This is a paradox, but I ‘ve had this experience.
  1. Lukas Moodysson on Show Me Love (Swedish/ Sweden/ 1998)
  • Read this interview if you wondered where someone can end up after being a total failure in the film school
  • About the director: Poetry and writing were his strengths to start with – not films; was largely supported by a producer who kept pushing until he came up with his debut film
  • About the movie: A story that revolves around the love between two girls – one a lesbian and other a heterosexual – which goes on to bring out the boiling mind-set of the teenage
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: On a director’s control for actors – (It is like) bungee jumping – you know you are falling, but there are ropes to catch you
  • A quote to note: (About – people coming to you and saying you ‘re great) There are some things that are good to be addicted to, but that’s not one of them.
  1. Terry Gilliam on Jabberwocky (English/ UK/ 1977)
  • Read this interview if you thought that someone inclined towards animation, cartoons, painting and such may not know to work with real people
  • About the director: Had initially met with success in the space of animation and cartoons before venturing in to full-fledged director
  • About the movie: A fantasy film based out of Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky in which the protagonist had to fight his way with a monster after the death of his father
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: The hardest thing is always the beginning of the day. You need the first shot, and you ‘ve got to get it in a certain amount of time or you ‘re doomed.
  • A quote to note: (On working with sets) I think too many people believe that films are real, even the people who make them. It’s bullshit, it’s all artifice.
  1. Sam Mendes on American Beauty (English/ USA/ 1999)
  • Read this interview if you want one another example to know that stars will automatically line up when a master piece is in the making
  • About the director: Didn’t get to study films, Steven Spielberg gave him the chance to direct this script after seeing his Broadway production Cabaret
  • About the movie: An Oscar-winning movie about people’s struggle in the society battling between the quest for success vs true happiness
  • Message for an aspiring filmmaker: His recollection of Spielberg’s words: “It is your first movie, you ‘ll never be able to make it again. Dig your heels and say ‘I haven’t finished my day’ and be strong”.
  • A quote to note: In film, rehearsals are supposed to fit around everything else. In theater, everything else is supposed to fit around rehearsals.

From C.H.E.K.A.S.L.O.V.A.K.I.A to …

Ever since I got an opportunity to become a member of the Indo Cine Appreciations Forum (ICAF) in Chennai, India, I have never missed an opportunity to watch a film from a different part of the world. Undoubtedly, they bring in perspectives we thought never existed and help us view the world using a different “lens”. Time and again the analyst in me (hmm that is my salaried profession) used to raise this question – beyond the aspect of world cinema as a larger canvas of entertainment does it enrich a fan with additional insights about the country, culture, people, their cinema or other aspects? So I ventured to seek the answer by trying out films from a country I had the faintest idea. And I was musing on which one to select as there are scores of such!

Cut. Time goes back to an incident during my schooldays. In a spell-bee contest that I had participated:
“Can you spell Czechoslovakia?”
I said: “C.H.E.K.A.S.L.O.V.A.K.I.A.”
“Good try. Thanks for your participation.”
“!”.

Cut. Back to present. Years have gone by. Can I spell it now? He..he..never mind. Common, I never ever wanted to know more about this country after that.  For the case in point, I knew this was the best choice. I selected a few titles from Czechoslovakia that surfaced in the list of nominees under the category of Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The question on whether an Academy Award is a true reflection of best or good film is a different topic altogether and let us assume so for this post.

Even with this handful of movies, one can clearly understand as to how the ruthless Nazi regime and never-ending political unrest have traumatized this country in the last century. Though I had chosen the titles in a random fashion the movies presented at least two distinct themes. The first theme brings out the impact and experience a common man belonging to the Jewish community undergoes due to the surrounding political instability.

The Shop on Main Street (1965) – is my favorite of all and simply blew my mind. Due to the influence of a relative in power, a poverty-stricken German peasant becomes the “aryan-controller” of a button shop owned by an elderly Jewish lady. Slowly he gets torn between greed and guilt until the latter gets the better of him eventually. At that old age, the lady can’t even recognize that her shop is taken over and it is just matter of time before she could get deported. The poignant-comic mix of scenes that portray the interaction between the peasant and the elderly lady in this milieu have been crafted to perfection and even make us feel to be part of the inner struggle within him. A must watch film.

Divided we fall (2000) – You wouldn’t believe what abnormal times do to normal people”. This one-liner dialog from a character in the movie summarizes the message in its entirety for the viewers.  An infertile couple trying to provide refuge to a Jewish neighbor who managed to escape a Nazi camp, getting in to the watch list of a friend working as a Nazi collaborator, lying due to circumstances that they have begun expecting a child, then going to the extent of convincing the Jew to turn the lie to the truth – all add up to a heightened drama that is skillfully woven with subtle humor.

Kolya (1996) – Yet another movie set in the backdrop of political tension that rages the country. This time the drama is between a 50+ old man and a 5-year old boy. For the want of money, Czech Louka gets in to a namesake marriage with a Russian mother but soon finds himself left alone as a care-taker of her son. From that point, the story unfolds  a predictable but interesting relationship between a never-had-a-family/ womanizing Louka and a deserted Kolya. The language barrier between them only adds to the sentimental drama. Audience close to Tamil cinema might have a feel that this film invokes memories of “poovizhi vaasalillae”  in some sense – both scripted in a mature fashion.

The other theme is about the confusions that entangle the minds of adolescent youths and the impact of decisions made by them on account of those. The loves of blonde (1965) and Closely watched trains (1996) belong to this category. The former is a stereotype story – a young woman mistakes a one-night affair with a band star as a relation for life.  The latter is about a young guy indulging in exploration of sexual discovery oblivious of the war scenario that is engulfing him and the country as such.

And the last one I watched was The Fireman’s Ball (1967). It is about a sequence of events that go awry during the felicitation of a former chief in a fireman group. The movie neither had me glued nor did it invoke laughter. I was all the more surprised on its nomination as well as the praise it received amongst critics.

Coming back to the question – do movies help us gain insight about a country’s culture, history, people, filmdom and other aspects? In these I could clearly see that cinema in this geography has been used as a medium to project core issues faced by people and the nation rather than as a pure-play entertainer. May be the struggle for a basic and peaceful life had its say in the minds of the creators. And interestingly humor – be it wry, subtle or explicit – has been an inseparable ingredient in most films. Milos Foreman easily stood out as a key figure in Czech cinema world. So yes – no doubt a fan comes out much more enriched from ground zero. Personally, I have traversed a long way from someone at the level of C.H.E.K.A.S.L.O.V.A.K.I.A. to a more Czech-knowledgeable person.

But beyond a fan, if one aspires to truly appreciate world cinema the background knowledge becomes a necessity. In this lot, The Fireman’s Ball was a good example of that. Without the background, there is hardly any chance to recognize the freshness in the plot for its timeperiod and display of political satire that marks it as a significant creation in the Czech New Wave.

Is it the end of the post? Hold on a bit more! I did venture to do a little more research on this part of the globe and films out there. These are the interesting tidbits that came out of that:

  • Czechoslovakia was formed was born out of the separation of Austria and Hungary at the end of the world World War I. It was under the control of Nazis and Russians between 1938-45 and 1948-89 respectively. Eventually it got split in to Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Yeh I can spell it easily now!
  • 1960s saw the rise of Czech New Wave that invited world’s attention on the movies from this geography. A lot of new and young directors started making films with subjects never touched before and displayed their oppression against the Communist regime. Milos Foreman and Jan Sverak are notable names in this New Wave.
  • Most films were in Czech language. It is said that only 30+ Slovak films got released in the span 1992-2002.
  • Krysar (The Pied Piper) – an animated Czech film got in to Guinness for its creation in just one day! Another interesting info is that Czech films have been known for animation since 1950s.

Sita sings blues

Ram-Sita-Gods
Ram-Sita-Gods by Nina Paley/ CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sporting Sita as someone with low-cut dress and voice-over based on western style? Must be crazy!! This will not even fit a typical Indian woman forget alone Sita of the epic Ramayana. This story must definitely be one of those tainted attempts in the name of glorifying an age-old literature in the modern context. Well, these were my initial thoughts after viewing the title and opening scene. What else would run in the mind of a person who has grown up hearing this epic tale from the days of cradle? Anyone who had read Ramayana even superficially would know that Sita is cited as an epitome of virtuous woman and in fact addressed as Sita Devi (female aspect of divinity). And Rama as the adharsh purush (ideal man).

Few scenes pass by and I get neutralized on thoughts. And few more pass by and I get completely convinced that this is a no-nonsense script designed to communicate a message. At the end of the movie, you are left wondering as to what would have transpired in the mind of Nina Paley (direction/ production/ script) when she started framing this.

Contemporary Rama-Sita
Scene fromContemporary Story by Nina Paley/ CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sita sings blues is about a story set in the modern context that draws a parallel to the Indian epic Ramayana. As titled, the commonly told version of Ramayana revolves around Rama, establishing him as the ideal son, king and human. Well what about as an ideal spouse? That is where Sita who is portrayed as an equitable match scores a notch higher. The contemporary story, true to its title, retains the essence of the epic but unfolds the proceedings from Sita’s (female protagonist) perspective. And succeeds in sowing the thought that Rama has indeed slipped by questioning Sita’s chastity.

Towards the end there is a mild feel of slackened pace. One reason could be that the story has to go in to the detail beyond Rama’s victorious return from Lanka which is where the commonly told version ends. And that is understandable given the intent of the story.

There are several aspects at play in the story. Some obvious and some not so much. Yet the movie doesn’t seem to slip anywhere in trying to articulate the intent. The result – a masterpiece that has a flawless mix of multiple art forms – musical, classical literature and 2D animation.

As for the obvious, the animated characters present a distinct portrayal typical to the respective time period. The narrative style consists of blues (musical genre characterized by a pattern of rhymed call-and-response effect) sung by Sita supplemented with voice overs from native youngsters belonging to India as narrators of the epic.

It is when we uncover those beyond the obvious that our admiration for this creation increases multi-fold. While the story clearly brings out the cry of a woman for equal and trustworthy relationships little do we know as an average viewer that the woman is Nina herself! The musical side has a lot more to it. A good part of the music consists of tracks from Annette Hanshaw, the American jazz singer of the 1920s. This also lead to widespread contention on copyright violation which was eventually answered through demanded licensing cost and lowering of the attribution level to ‘public domain’. Yes, it can be viewed online for free: http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html

The after-release phase wasn’t that smooth either. There were vehement oppositions from Hindu activist group as well as from academic circles for such portrayal of the Indian epic in the western style.                                                       Nina goes on to reason out her depiction of Sita as below:                                   “Some criticize the film as too irreverent, and find the way Sita is portrayed offensive, with her narrow waist and big hips. It is inappropriate to others just because the film is a cartoon. Others feel that the film focuses too much on Sita rather than Rama. In the Ramayana, Sita is only a footnote in the story, but obviously my film is about Sita and her suffering.”                                                         I agree on the aspect of magnifying Sita’s perspective for the case in point. On the contrary, her portrayal is something I wish could have reflected the literature.  Even if it is a ‘cartoon’ it has to reflect the idea of the original creator. I just felt that Ramayana has been a forever-story for kids and this movie certainly is not for them or even for adults who have never heard about the epic.

In essence, as we try to come out of the movie we are left with the thought it would have been much more appropriate had Valmiki named his epic as ‘Sitayana’! That very thought confirms that Nina Paley has hit a massive sixer (kind of equivalent of home run in American baseball) in Indian cricket parlance with this attempt.