Come out to Little Italy today — to the Boston Public Library’s North End Branch, to be specific — and take in a little India, courtesy of this sustained work of dazzling indie-animation, a masterwork of questing quirk that combines ancient myth, the songs of Annette Hanshaw, and an unflagging engine of visual invention to answer the burning question: Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?
Well, to the extent that that’s even a comprehensible question, the credit probably has to be shared. Hindu sage Maharshi Valmiki wrote the Ramayana — the great Indian verse epic written around the turn of the first millennium, which, along with the Mahabharata, served as a foundational text for early Hinduism and continues to play a role in the imagination of generations of Indian children, for whom its strange visions, petty rivalries, and tragic love story form a shared stock of myth and moral instruction — but American animator Nina Paley made SITA SINGS THE BLUES, an immediately arresting, remarkably fluid, and finally exhilarating retelling of the Ramayana that takes the epic’s central story – the passionate but ill-fated union of Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, and his long-suffering wife Sita – and refracts it through the varied and not always reliable memories of young Indians who grew up on it, further complicating an already fiendishly baroque tale.
On top of all this heady stuff is the framing story, contemporary and set mostly in American cities, of Nina Paley’s own doomed relationship with her beloved boyfriend, who drifts out of her life after taking a job that sends him to India without her. She — in the movie, and presumably in real life — clearly identifies with Sita, whose unconditional devotion to Rama brings her nothing but punishment by one wretched hardship after another (a kidnapping by a mad king, a trial by fire to prove her virtue, death threats delivered in gory detail by hideous monsters, more), and who, for all that, still fails to secure her husband’s love.
Feminist parable? Cautionary tale? Could be. A playfully postmodern story about stories and their tellers? Oh sure. But mostly pleasure: sensory, supersensible, and irresistible.
4/30 – 6pm
Boston Public Library, North End Branch
25 Parmenter Street