As an Indian American whose parents spent very little time in India, my parents thought it best to drag my sister and I to bala vihar, which can best be summarized as Hindu Sunday School. We spent an hour learning Hindi, an hour learning Hindu philosophy, and this went on until Sunday morning SAT classes took precedent. Needless to say, I am relatively familiar with the Ramayana. Or at least, I thought I was.
I took a job which required of me to research creative commons films and I came across Sita Sings the Blues, a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, as told through the lens of the animator’s journey through her failing marriage and subsequent divorce. Needless to say, it’s artsy. Nina Paley, an American artist, combines multiple animation styles as well as the music of Annette Hanshaw’s in an animated musical that is by all means, weird. But what struck me was the ending of the film.
For those unfamiliar, The Ramayana is a Hindu epic detailing the account of how Ram, heir to the throne, and his wife Sita, was banished from their kingdom. Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, saved by Ram, and subsequently they head back to the kingdom. However, what eluded me through my Sunday school experience was the telling of the Uttara Kanda, which parallels the end of Paley’s film.
Ram hears rumors and growing concern as to whether Sita has been unfaithful despite proving her purity previously by walking through fire. He banishes her, and she gives birth to Ram’s sons. Ram comes across the boys singing his praises, and then asks Sita to prove her purity and faithfulness to him once more. Sita is swallowed up by Mother Earth to take refuge from this questioning, as she has always been faithful.
This last paragraph of information was made clear to me upon watching Sita Sings the Blues. Before then, the story stopped when they returned to their kingdom. When I first heard of a white woman taking and adapting Hindu lore into a pet project to explain her divorce, I immediately assumed she was appropriating my culture. But once I watched it, what donned on me was that she was telling a story. A story that for years had been miscommunicated to me. My respect for the Ramayana grew, and my frustration with my upbringing increased.
The censorship of the Ramayana turned a woman’s story of triumph in the face of victimhood and strength in adversity into a fairy tale of rescue by my teachers and parents is frustrating, but I don’t necessarily blame them. Rather, it has fueled my exploration of both Paley’s interpretation and of the Ramayana, which has led me to the conclusion that the mixed reviews and frustration with this film are valid. Obviously, a white woman choosing to tell a Hindu epic and identifying with the main character to the point where she overshadows and criminalizes one of the main characters of the film is frustrating and comes off appropriative. And the white-washing of characters who should obviously be darker and are instead the same skin color as the animator borders infuriating. However, this film does open up a huge discussion on Hindu mythology, much of which I was not privy to previously due to educational gaps in the religion.
I think this framing brings me to my point of religious education and media. It was frustrating to me that the ending of the Ramayana had been omitted from my education. And media, especially animated media filled with humor, such as Sita Sings the Blues, can be a great teaching tool if they are taught authentically. Jennifer Babu has previously discussed the Ramayana as a Disney interpretation, and this is exactly how Disney would handle the Ramayana (minus the failing marriage narrative and sexual innuendos).
I love Sita Sings the Blues for what it has done for my religious education. It is a really beautifully animated film that is interesting and a powerful force in the animation world. Sita Sings the Blues is a launching point of exploration, and while I have mixed feelings about the film, it also has definitely changed my perspective.