Salma Hayek is at the 67th Festival de Cannes, which is ending just now, but not for what you’d think. The Academy Award-nominated actress is also a producer, and on Saturday she screened a work-in-progress of her latest production, The Prophet. An adaptation of Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran’s masterpiece from 1923, the film will be animated, with Roger Allers (The Lion King) overseeing the work of nine directors from around the world, each bringing a chapter of the book to life.
One of these nine directors is Nina Paley.
An American artist who has worked as cartoonist and animator, Paley’s first major work was the comic strip Nina’s Adventures. A freewheeling journey through whatever the artist found amusing or interesting, this series is Nina’s favorite from all the ones she has done. Many strips from Nina’s Adventures are funny, but they are also poignant and relatable, as evidenced in this bruising, yin-yang display of art and commerce. Later, she moved on to Fluff, a comic strip about a cat, which—while slightly more mainstream—is also very humorous, like in this sample.
Paley, feeling artistic “impoverishment” from cartooning because of the monotony of producing a daily feature, shifted to animation and, in 1999, came up with Pandorama. Set to “Yeah Yeah” by Scottish punk rock group Revillos, Pandorama is a feverish journey through Pandora’s Box, a nightmare initiated because of the fall from grace. It’s the world’s first cameraless IMAX film (I can’t even imagine watching it on a screen that big), as Paley drew all of Pandorama’s images (nearly 2,500) directly on 70mm film over the course of a year. Every smudge, speck of dust or cat hair you might see in any screengrab from the film is because it was actually there on the leader.
Pandorama traveled the festival circuit with mild success, but Paley’s next short would enjoy much more popularity, and deservedly so. Fetch!, on the surface, is just about a man who throws a red ball for his dog, and has to go through a labyrinthine maze before getting his pet back. It’s visually inventive, packed with sight gags and extremely well directed. The animation style is clean and possesses a quaint charm. Yet, this should not preclude one from pondering over the cerebral rumblings driving the film. Paley was inspired to make Fetch! due to “philosophical pondering on the malleable nature of reality,” and this is evident from the gags too. That the “horizon” in the film changes to a wall and then a mere line is important to understand the protagonist’s nirvana depicted in the climax. If only more art enjoyable for four-year olds contained this much thought behind it.
Paley has made a few other short films, of which two are quite famous. The Stork uses the symbol of the bird visiting expecting households to paint a scathing critique of Western affluence and consumerism portrayed. While lauded for its biting observations, I find The Stork one of Paley’s least accomplished works (for a reason I shall come back to later). This Land Is Mine is “about” the wars fought in Israel/Palestine for centuries, but in reality it could be about all of humanity. Pointing out the pointlessness of violent human conflicts, This Land is not just intelligent and important; it is also gorgeous and superbly made throughout. It may be Paley’s strongest work yet.
This discussion has so far elided Paley’s most famous and widely seen work. It’s time to talk about that.
I first heard of Sita Sings the Blues, Paley’s first feature film, from this effusive article by Roger Ebert (as, apparently, did many other people). The Ramayana was the first epic, religious or otherwise, I had ever read and it has remained close to me ever since. For those not up to date with their Sanskrit religious epics (who could that be?), the Ramayana is the story of Lord Rama and Sita, who are exiled from their rightful kingdom for fourteen years due to a woman’s jealousy. While eking out a life in the forests, Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, king of Lanka, who is bewitched by her beauty. Rama must set out to find Sita and get her back, defeating Ravana and in the process ridding the land of evil.
I have always “preferred” the Mahabharata because it’s much more complex, colorful and gigantic, but the Ramayana has an insular, narratively propulsive feel to that is immensely powerful. From childhood, numerous relatives and elders impressed upon me how Lord Rama is The Ideal Man and how I must endeavor to be like him. Upon a cursory glance, Rama was, indeed, perfect and noble in every way, so much so that he was—in literary terms—a boring character. Yet, after a few years, I started noticing shades of grey in Rama and began questioning some of his decisions. It no longer seemed ideal to become like him.
Sita Sings the Blues addresses that itch. It narrates the story of the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view, adding more weight to everything Rama does (or does not do). It highlights the injustice he meted out to his dutiful wife, and the disrespect at the heart of his actions. But it doesn’t stop there. It also features a track with three shadow puppets, voiced by modern-day Indians (with the same accents that have made us the subject of countless parodies), ad-libbing the Ramayana’s story and debating important questions amongst them: How much jewelry did Sita have? What did the monkeys in the story look like? A third track features Sita singing Annette Henshaw songs (hence, the Blues) that best relate to her mood and circumstances. And, finally, a subplot bringing it all together: Nina’s domestic life herself, as her husband goes to India for a job and, after she visits him in Kerala, terminates their marriage over email. Nina’s life collapses, until she picks up a copy of the Ramayana and finds some details evocative of real life….
If the above paragraph didn’t make it abundantly clear, there is nothing quite like Sita Sings the Blues, and it is like nothing else. Paley’s fiercely unique debut was awarded the Crystal Bear at Berlinale in 2008, and several more accolades at the various festivals it traveled to. Just a revisionist take on one of the world’s grandest and oldest epics would make any film distinctive; Sita Sings the Blues actually starts from there. It does not just deconstruct the Ramayana and takes gleeful aim at its pious hero, but through the shadow puppets, it deconstructs storytelling itself. Which version of a story is correct? What happens when a tale is passed down through generations, or spreads across different countries? As a puppet comments: “What a challenge, these stories!”
It’s not all mental masturbation, though. Paley’s voice—prevalent in each of her works—is laced with humor and Sita Sings the Blues has that in spades. It may be merely eighty-two minutes, but those minutes are loaded with laughs. Countless visual gags arise out of the animation; Paley uses the nature of 2D animation to propel her jokes in a way that 3D would never allow. The puppets provide bountiful guffaws as they prod and tumble their way through the story, poking fun at the fantastical elements while coming to terms with their own ignorance of the finer details. Paley even goes full meta (and full Bollywood) with a three-minute-long intermission, making this the only adaptation of the Ramayana ever to have a flushing sound.
Paley is a noted activist, and one could argue that sometimes her activism overtakes her artistry. The Stork and the weakest sections of Sita Sings the Blues are seemingly fueled by anger, while This Land is Mine and the strong portions of Sita Sings are underscored by understanding, and that’s what makes the difference. It’s when she achieves a balance between the two that one can revel in her keen animator’s eye and gift for clever humor while thinking over what she has to say. For what she has to say is frequently profound, and worth listening to.