Category Archives: Film

“Mixing Magic and Alchemy in Mira Nair’s Films” by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Mixing Magic and Alchemy in Mira Nair’s Films” in “News India Times” (5 March 2010).

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“Mixing Magic and Alchemy in Mira Nair’s Films” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” (5 March 2010)

Having recently published a book that describes the Bollywood film industry’s cultural relevance and influence in diasporic Indian communities and reading all the hub-bub around Shah Rukh Khan’s recent run-in with Bal Thackeray, writing a retrospective on Mira Nair’s film career is a welcome respite. Mrs. Nair’s films offer glimpses into a world that you don’t see represented on screen in a refreshingly un-stereotyped manner. Even Jason Solomons, who recently hosted “A Life in Pictures: Mira Nair”, describes the director as a formidable force in “world cinema”.

In an interview with Mr. Solomons, Mira Nair described how she found herself in film making: “I stumbled upon film making”. As a child, her driver took her to see “traveling theatre” where she witnessed actors perform the age-old story of good versus evil without the use of any props. While pursuing theatre in her Irish-Catholic school in India she often played men’s roles “because of my deep voice”. For years she thought of herself as an actress and enjoyed performing, even joining a professional theatre group in Delhi. To explain her unconventional choice of studying drama as a young woman in India, Mrs. Nair described how her parents, despite their views to the contrary, focused on her two older brothers which left Mira to act “footloose and fancy free”, exploring “whether theatre could change the world.”

After receiving a scholarship to attend Harvard University where she studied film and majored in Visual Studies, Mrs. Nair was quickly turned off by the limited range of roles offered to Indian women. However, she regularly visited New York where she attended performances at La Mama, a well-respected experimental theatre organization. It was her education at La Mama, she explained to Mr. Solomons, which influenced her in directing “Salaam Bombay!”

“Salaam Bombay!” (1988)

“Salaam Bombay!” won Mrs. Nair the “Golden Camera” award at Cannes Film Festival and international recognition as a director committed to cinéma vérité. Additionally, Mrs. Nair also emerged from the success of the film as an international ambassador for India. So not only did Mrs. Nair capture the influence photography has in her films and her devotion “to the frame” in filming a movie, but “Salaam Bombay!” also gave her the opportunity to influence national policy with regards to children’s welfare in India. Without any foundations for street children in India back in 1987, she and her screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala created the Salaam Baalak Trust, centers for helping street kids.

“Mississippi Masala” (1991)

In her subsequent film, Mrs. Nair transitioned from Mumbai’s urban jungle to Mississippi’s agrarian economy. Describing “Mississippi Masala” as a movie “about being brown between black and white”, the movie portrays the inter-racial romance of an African-American man played by Denzel Washington and a Ugandan Asian as performed by Sarita Choudhury. The film, which contains sociological elements, was a common reference point for the women and men I interviewed in writing my book. The immigrant-Indian community’s reaction to Mrs. Nair’s love story was instrumental in teaching the second-generation Indian Americans that marrying outside the community was still taboo.

“Monsoon Wedding” (2001)

Many of the couples in my book also reference another Nair movie, “Monsoon Wedding”, when describing what their non-Indian friends and family understood to be a “typical” Indian wedding. In her discussion with Mr. Salomons, Mrs. Nair described “Monsoon Wedding” (2001) as one which contains “jadoo”, or magic; scenes from “Monsoon Weddings” are “anti-depressants, magic, alchemy that comes out of the darkest sorrow, child abuse”.

Inspired by her film teaching in South Africa, Mrs. Nair described how she challenged herself to practice what she preached by “making something out of nothing” and experimenting with whether “an interesting movie can be made with one million dollars in thirty days”. She described the beauty of having “no expectations and you’re doing your own thing”.

“Hysterical Blindness” (2002)

Made-for-TV “Hysterical Blindness”, starring Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis, is a huge departure from Nair’s former movies. Shot over twenty-three days, the project gave her the opportunity to practice the craft of film making as well as continue to engage in the theme of female sexuality. What distinguishes “Hysterical Blindness” is its “female gaze”, or Mrs. Nair’s ability to “bring female identity to the camera”. Mrs. Nair discussed how male-dominated cinema lacks sensuality, suggesting that “Erotic is what you don’t see”.

“The Namesake” (2006)

Mrs. Nair described reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel “The Namesake” (2004) just two months after a losing her mother-in-law. Within a year of discussing the project with Mrs. Lahiri, the director began shooting the film which stars Kal Penn, America’s best-known actor of Indian origin who has since left Hollywood to serve as a White House official for President Barak Obama.  Mrs. Nair described how she “made the movie because of loss and understanding loss” and how the movie, global in its scope, served as a “platform to connect Calcutta and the USA”.

“Amelia” (2009)

For her most recent film, “Amelia” starring Richard Gere and Hillary Swank, Mrs. Nair describes how she agreed to direct the movie just days after plans to film “Shantaram” starring Johnny Depp fell apart. Having watched sixteen hours of original reel footage of Amelia Earhart, Mrs. Nair was intrigued by the pilot’s “odd sense of humility”.

Mira Nair’s fans will be happy to learn that she is currently taking “Monsoon Wedding” to Broadway where it will be staged as a musical while working to adapt Mohsin Hamid’s novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” into a movie. In response to why there are so few female directors, Mrs. Nair suggested that the dearth “has to do with confidence. It’s a con game, to be a director. Men can do it, have that kind of chutzpah”. And her final piece of advice for aspiring film makers? “Have the heart of a bird and the skin of an elephant”.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Taxi wallahs take on terror” by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Vandana Sood’s documentary “The Taxi Takes on Terror”.

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“Taxi wallahs take on Terror” by Kavita Ramdya (“News India Times” 22 January 2010)

My husband and I recently visited Rajasthan a few weeks after the one-year anniversary of the November 26th terrorist attack in Mumbai. The country was on a terrorist red alert and a good friend of ours who has a management function at an international news agency warned us that they had shut down their local Mumbai office and asked their staff to lay low; the local police and government security agency were abuzz, fearful that terrorists would strike again. Thankfully, India proved safe during our visit. However, the widespread and tightened security, along with chat among locals about the terrorist threats, were an instructive education in comparing how the country has responded to and thinks about the November 26th attack in relation to post-9/11 America and even England after the July 7, 2005 London bombing.

Vandana Sood, a New Delhi-born and New York-based film director, has exported Mumbai’s story of modern-day terrorism abroad for the world to benefit. In her short videos entitled “The Taxi Takes on Terror”, Ms. Sood acts as a mediator between taxi-wallahs, or drivers, and their passengers who conjecture, discuss and debate the causes of the 26 November terrorist attack (www.thetaxitakes.com). Three months after the 26 November terrorist attacks, Ms. Sood filmed and facilitated conversations within the taxis. And why is the taxi the space in which Ms. Sood has decided to direct this dialogue? Because, according to her, it is the public space where “people of various socio-economic backgrounds and religions meet.” In a recent conversation with Ms. Sood, she explains further:

“Globally, taxi drivers and passengers have spontaneous and candid interactions in taxis. A taxi driver is a mobile new-age guru who navigates the streets and has a pulse on what is ticking in a city. Cabbies are also links of exchange and contact between people from various backgrounds, constantly conversing with people on the street and uniquely positioned to sense the atmosphere in a city or town. They understand the cities they traverse and are sensitive to political upheaval, given that it directly affects their livelihoods. Most of the drivers picked for The Taxi Takes on Terror were on the roads of Mumbai when the terrorists attacked in November 2008. Hence they witnessed the carnage and have a personal experience with terrorism. Also, in particular, within a taxi in India the passengers in the backseat usually belong to a higher class background than the taxi driver. So, interactions between cab drivers and passengers allow us to engage in a conversation that breaches formidable class and caste divides – conversations that might not occur without the intervention inside the taxi space.  The environment of the taxi, a public, yet contained space also provided the perfect conditions amenable for filming.”

In “Welcome To The Taxi Takes On Terror”, which begins with an ironic 1960s-era paean to Mumbai, is the first installment of the four-video series. In the video, taxi-wallahs contrast the opportunity, wealth and innovation of Mumbai with its intrinsic poverty. One taxi-wallah describes how Mumbai’s streets are “paved with gold” yet there is “nowhere to sleep”, pointing out the discrepancy between the city’s opportunities for wealth and advancement with the homeless beggars who are also part of the city’s landscape. Ms. Sood films passengers and taxi-wallahs as they discuss what makes Mumbai great (shopping, industry, development) and conjecture why the terrorists targeted Bombay.

“Who is to Blame?” conveys Delhi’s inhabitants’ suspicion of Pakistan and its madrasas in organizing the 26 December Mumbai attack. In light of President Obama’s recent criticism of lapses in White House security, the taxi passengers also blame India’s security and local police in their inability to detect and prevent the attack.

“Women Taxi Drivers” is perhaps the most interesting of the four short films. I was surprised to learn that Mumbai has two women’s taxi services, companies which teach women how to drive taxis and self-defense skills such as karate in order to exclusively serve female passengers. Sexual harassment remains an issue in India and drinking and driving among young, male taxi-wallahs at night is a concern. Now that women are working longer hours and spending their expendable income on late-night movies and evenings out with friends, there is more of a demand for female drivers to take women passengers home.

Supriya Surve, a twenty-three-year old taxi-wallah, is wise beyond her years. When asked what she enjoys about driving a taxi, she responds with “I get to meet new people… you learn. You get to know what kind of people live in the city. You find out about people and their behavior” before answering her mobile phone with a resigned yet professional voice: business is good.

The final installment “Women and Islam” stars a female, Muslim taxi-wallah, Sameena. This video focuses on the issue of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a burkah. Sameena’s mother suggested her daughter learn how to drive a taxi because she would “earn depending on how hard she worked”. Sameena, like all the other thousands of taxi-wallahs in Mumbai, expresses an entrepreneurial spirit when she describes how by driving a taxi versus taking a more traditional women’s job she is “not anyone’s slave” and is, instead, her “own boss.” It is later revealed that Sameena is a young divorcee who was held a prisoner in her own home by her ex-husband. She describes herself as sitting around and doing embroidery when she was married, “like an illiterate”. It was only by divorcing her husband that she was able to work and earn her own income.

The first half of the video is of Muslim women passengers and Sameena discussing identities as Muslim women whereas the second half of the video takes a more insidious turn when Ms. Sood records taxi-wallahs and their male passengers discuss the Taliban and issues such as “honor killings”. Clearly, Ms. Sood’s videos are mediums for social critique. When asked about her ambitions for her films, she responds:

“I aim to work on socially conscious media focused around spirituality, inter cultural communication and Human Rights. Even though my focus is on non-fiction media making I am interested in fiction and have been working on a feature length screenplay centered around the garment of the ‘burkha’ and cross dressing. I have a background in the area of community media education and the concept of empowering people with the tools of communication motivates me. I aim to work on projects that mobilize the interconnectedness of the Internet and its web 2.0 tools to create greater awareness and explore new ways for people to learn from one another.”

Like so many expatriate artists today, Vandana Sood is intent on moving back and forth between her home country, India, and her adopted one, America. And like her socially-conscious colleagues, Ms. Sood is intent on creating social change through her artistry, film making – “Shabash!”

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“Vampires as Missionaries” by Kavita Ramdya (movie review of “Twilight”)

It took the Vatican’s statement against the “Twilight” vampire franchise to spur me into watching the first movie in the series… and now I’m converted and hooked.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s movie review of “Twilight”.

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Kavita Ramdya’s “Vampires as Missionaries” in “News India Times” (8 January 2010)

I fell into the trap: reading the Vatican’s criticism of the most recent movie in the “Twilight” saga (2008), “New Moon” (2009), and deciding I needed to watch the series to see what all the fuss is about. Had it not been for the Vatican issuing an official statement that the movies provide a “deviant moral vacuum”, I would have been one of the many adults who have long since graduated high school with hopes of never revisiting it, not least a fictional, Hollywood-concocted high school where the student body is unnaturally thin, beautiful and white, wealthy and always well dressed… even if they are blood-sucking vampires. My sympathy has its limits.

So imagine my surprise when, spurred by the Vatican’s statement that the movies wield an unholy influence on its young viewers, a half hour into watching the film I became both a converted “Twi” fan, even a missionary, and convinced that the Vatican has it all wrong. The reason why I am now a die-hard fan of “Twilight” has everything to do with its teachings about morality, ethics, discipline and obedience, Christian values touted at church before peopled pews and in youth group meetings.

If viewers, the Vatican included, were to look past the movie’s plot (“Twilight” revolves around a band of vampires), the film passes on the teachings of the Bible more closely than any other movie I’ve seen in recent memory. However, these traditional teachings are lost in a conspicuously consumptive society which places sex, material goods and external recognition above sacrifice, discipline and obedience. Surprisingly, “Twilight” espouses core values of Christianity and other world religions including Hinduism.

Ultimately, the plot in “Twilight” is one of Good versus Evil, a story at the foundation of religious texts such as the Old Testament and the Bhagavad Gita. Three newly-arrived vampires brutally attack and dismember town folk in Forks, Washington, where Bella Swan, the new girl, moves to live with her father. Meanwhile, a family of six vampires by the name of Cullen, live peacefully in the outskirts of town. They adopt Bella as one of their own even though she is a human whose body odor is as appealing to them as a turmeric-seasoned Chicken Korma from Baluchi’s. The movie’s action sequences revolve around how the “good” vampires, the Cullens, protect Bella from the brutal vampires whose unrestrained appetite for humans threaten the peace in Forks, Washington.

Apart from playing out the battle of Good versus Evil, “Twilight” emphasizes the qualities of discipline, sacrifice and kindness, characteristics which distinguish Jesus from Roman emperor Tiberius Casesar and define the Hindu sanyasa versus the kingly maharaja. Bella’s beau, Edward, describes how over decades he and his family restrain their thirst for human blood by dieting on forest animals, squirrels and deer and the like. He describes drinking animal blood “like tofu… it keeps you strong”, while implying that it’s still no replacement for human blood. However, he and his family are conscious that while they are vampires whose natural inclination is to draw the blood from dying humans, they are also capable of controlling these impulses through strict discipline and sacrifice. Being a vampire is no excuse for killing needlessly and violently; Edward distinguishes himself from “typical” vampires by his ability to control himself.

In this scene, Edward’s dialogue suggests that we, the viewing audience, are defined not only but what we do but also by what we abstain from doing. Although humans are mammals with the ability to eat and ingest animal flesh and have been doing so for millennia, the question surfaces whether having the ability and power to conquer the animal kingdom makes the act of meat eating permissive. Is it moral and ethical to kill and eat animals for our own consumption, particularly animals that are not capable of responding to our man-made hunting tools?

The scene also illuminates the idea of sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of earthly pleasures. The British Humanist Association recently ran a marketing campaign whose slogan was “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” suggesting that without a holy presence such as God, we are all left to our own devices and have the self permission to run amuck, engaging in hedonistic pleasures as if the pursuit of earthly pleasures is the only goal in life. Without God to keep us in place, the BHA suggests that we should bend to our every impulse, whether it be greedily taking more than our fair share of cake, spending more money on ourselves and less on charitable giving, and indulge in our every carnal desire rather than strive for a long-term sense of inner quietude.

Finally, “Twilight” distinguishes itself from other teeny-bopper movies with the absence of sex between the two main characters, Bella and the leading man, Edward. The screen sizzles with sexual energy, no doubt, but the two never consummate their love for each other. Instead, they spend much of their time, albeit their pupils tellingly dilated, staring into each other’s eyes. Their courtship, rather than taking place in the backseat of Bella’s truck, is in what Shakespeare describes as “this most excellent canopy, the air” when Bella and Edward fly from tree to tree in the woods overlooking Washington’s natural beauty, its flora and fauna.

In the “Twilight” series, vampires don’t sleep. Edward visits Bella’s room every night and lovingly watches her while she dreams of him and his dreamy pale countenance. One night he tells her he wants to try something. As they begin to press their lips together, he quickly backs off and says he can’t. In another scene, Edward gallantly sets aside his fears of breaching discipline to suck venom out of Bella’s wrist and heroically pulls away before emptying her arteries of blood; she is empty of poison but not of her life force.

The Vatican, upon closer look at “Twilight”, should look past the superficial vampire plot and instead focus on the moral and ethical parables in the film. In the occasionally imaginative world of Hollywood, even vampires are capable of goodness.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” now available on Amazon. www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Blackness in India” (notions of beauty in India)

I recently met Lucia King at her film screening of “At Play” at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in West Kensington, a documentary of film director Roysten Abel’s adaptation “In Othello” of Shakespeare’s play “Othello” (talk about meta texts!). “At Play” got me thinking of the recently black-faced model Lara Stone and  how skin color continues to determine people’s perceptions of beauty, class and education in India.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Blackness in India“.

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“News India Times” December11, 2009

“Blackness in India” by Kavita Ramdya

“Blackface” as a performance tool is not solely relegated to nineteenth-century minstrel shows or early-twentieth-century films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Most recently, the use of blackface re-surfaced when French Vogue published Steven Klein’s photos of a blacked up Lara Stone. Cynical yet true, blackface has a shock value that generates free marketing and publicity unmatched by YouTube promotional videos and Google advertisements. Blackface, in addition to remaining relevant in today’s fashion circles, is also topical on stage. In Roysten Abel’s production of “In Othello” (2004), an adaptation of the Shakespearean classic performed by Indian actors and actresses and interspersed with Hindi, the actor who performs the part of Othello blackens his skin in order to suggest that his color is what results in Desdemona’s murder and Othello’s own suicide.

In “Othello”, Shakespeare’s anti-hero is a foreign man who has won the heart of fair Desdemona. Despite his military success which places him in high esteem among the men under his command and poetic language with which he woos Desdemona, the insecurities of his status of an outsider, a Moor, get the best of him. Shakespeare, rather than write a seminal play about racism had in fact written a psychological study of the effects freedom and democracy have on an individual making the transition from the pre-civilized world where social hierarchy is determined by violence and war to modernity where education and language skills define success.

Lucia King, film-maker and painter, whose documentary of the making of Abel’s “In Othello”, entitled “At Play”, documents the use of blackface by the Kerala-born director who transformed the play into one about racism against northeast Indians. While working as a set designer during the filming of “In Othello”, Lucia decided to take her role as a “fly on the wall” amidst the actors, actresses and director one step further by filming while on set.

The introduction of “At Play” is a few minutes worth of video footage of the actors and actresses in full costume and make-up quietly poised and motionless as they model for the film’s publicity shots. It is initially striking to watch Indian actors wearing long, wavy moustaches and Indian actresses sober from the weight of heavy, velvet gowns.

Abel chose to focus on the anti-hero’s color rather than the psychological tensions that climax in the brutal murder of Desdemona. However, in the case of the film “In Othello”, Indians’ widespread prejudice against dark-colored brethren is the crucifix upon which Othello hangs himself. Every Indian woman I know has been subjected to comments about the fairness or darkness of her skin by family members raised in India where skin color among Indians plays a significant role in the politics of marriage. Whereas growing up in America, I was envied by friends for my “year-long tan”, I was also conscious of NRIs assessing my skin color.

Bloomberg reporter Saikat Chatterjee’s article “Fair-Skin Fashion Boosts Sales of Whitening Creams in India” describes how major global consumer product companies such as Unilever are marketing products such as the popular Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream, providing the growing middle and upper classes with an alternative to the old-fashioned “turmeric and sandalwood paste” remedy for dark skin. Hindustan Unilever is not the only company marketing skin whiteners to Indians. Blockbuster brands such as L’Oreal SA, Beiersdorf AG and Emami Ltd. Have have found success in selling “fairness creams”. Chatterjee reports how “sales of whiteners increased 17 percent to 20.5 billion rupees ($432 million) in the nine months to September from a year earlier, according to research by Haarlem, Netherlands-based Nielsen Co.”

Browsing my parents’ copies of “India Abroad”, the back pages which contained the Personal Ads inevitably advertised single women “with fair skin” and “well-educated” men. The significance of having fair skin, like “wheat”, for a woman is equally as important as completing a graduate education is for a man. Skin-bleaching creams remain popular among Indian women in the subcontinent. Of course, the easiest way to interpret the nation’s obsession with fairness is in relation to India’s social history with regards to the caste system.

Before banishing the caste system, the Untouchables (India’s lowest class), were relegated to the jobs that brought them outdoors, thereby exposing them to the sun whereas Brahmins, the priestly class, worked within the confines of the holy temple. Fairness is more a determinant of class than it is beauty. According to T.K. Oommen, professor emeritus of sociology at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Indians traditionally associate fair skin with aristocracy and not having to work outdoors in a menial job.”

The irony is that in looking at Indian-Hindu temple art, Krishna is always depicted with blue-colored skin; in fact, “Krishna” means “the dark one”. Additionally, the Sanskrit meaning of “krish” is “to draw to oneself, to attract”. Krishna is dark skinned yet attractive, contradistinct from ideals about beauty in mainstream Indian society.

It makes sense that Abel produced a version of “Othello” where the main character’s regional origin and skin color result in his unravelling. The story of Othello’s self-hatred and violence is foreboding even seven hundred years after Shakespeare penned the original play. Let’s hope Indian consumers recognize Krishna’s beauty, transcend the antiquated caste system and refrain from purchasing skin-bleaching creams; unifying India despite its regional differences, varied dialects, disparate customs and religious sects may depend on it.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com

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Review of Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” by Kavita Ramdya

Sita

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Nina Paley’s animated film “Sita Sings the Blues”.

A few days ago I interviewed cartoonist Nina Paley for a review I wrote of her animated film “Sita Sings the Blues”. The movie is fantastic – it’s funny and smart. “Sita Sings the Blues” is a modern take on the ancient Hindu text “The Ramayana”; the movie picks up when Rama is banished to the forest for fourteen years with Sita accompanying him. However, the story is told from Sita’s point of view; she emerges as an intelligent yet gullible ingénue head-over-heals in love with an effeminate Rama who is overly concerned with what other people think of him. He’s clearly not good enough for her.

I was surprised by how much interest my review in “News India Times” generated; readers e-mailed to tell me that they were eager to watch the movie which is available for free on YouTube. Even readers of my parents’ generation, a generation that didn’t grow up with home computers and are considerably less computer literate for it, were inspired to take advantage of the free, on-line creative content.

Apart from the colourful animation, diverse soundtrack and the East-meets-West look and feel, what does the success of Nina Paley’s film indicate? I propose that there is clearly a market for modern, updated versions of classical and religious stories, myths and beliefs we’ve all grown up whatever our faith. People have an innate desire to listen to stories which explain their origin and their past. In a world where media has exploded to include graphic novels, the internet, HD-screen TVs and mobile phones, we’re seeking stories from non-traditional outlets that also recognize that the world is a much more complicated place now than it was when many of these myths, stories and beliefs were formulated.

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“News India Times”  September 11, 2009

“Rama, Sita and the agony of separation: An animated film presents the epic story of the Ramayana in a format accessible to a generation that has grown up in the Digital Age” by Kavita Ramdya

I recently discovered Nina Paley’s animated film “Sita Sings the Blues” and am compelled to share it with anyone and everyone interested in what happens when East meets West, ancient mythology intersects with popular culture, and artists create “interdisciplinary art.”

Paley’s 72-minute movie tells the story of Sita and Rama from Valmiki’s Ramayana in a way that can only be described as accessible, fun and modern. Her project – to provide an animated reinterpretation of Hindu mythology from a modern and a female point of view – is a risky one but has proved fortuitous for her career: the film has received global media recognition and an enthusiastic response on You Tube, where you can watch the film for free.

Like many great works of art, albeit typically poetry and fiction, Paley’s inspiration for creating the film stemmed from challenges in her love life. After she moved to Trivandrum, India, for her hus-band’s career, he dumped her, leaving her alone to navigate India. However, the hardship she endured as a single, heartbroken woman in India gave her the insight to understand the nature of Sita’s devotion for Rama.

Rather than serve as a “sexist parable,” she writes in her blog, the Ramayana describes “the essence of painful relationships” and provides a “blueprint of human suffering.” Paley likens her husband and his cowardly abandonment to Rama and her own blind love as analogous to Sita’s.

The film, although an animated feature, is by no means a children’s movie. Instead, Paley has interwoven four disparate plots into her film. The viewer is first introduced to Paley’s autobiographical rendering of her failed marriage. The second is the comical back-and-forth between three shadow puppets who debate the mythology’s details and characters’ motivations in the Ramayana. Third, the viewer benefits from a retelling of Sita and Rama’s love story. In this story line, Sita is portrayed as a sickening goody-two-shoes, Rama as a spoiled and effeminate prince and Ravana as the prototypical Bollywood villain.

Finally, Sita sings the blues. Paley appropriates the music of Annette Hanshaw, a jazz singer from the 1920s and ‘30s, for Sita to croon in episodic bursts of song throughout the film.

In order to distinctly divide the four story lines, Paley not only provides a different sound track for each story but also a different “look and feel” in order to visually distinguish the plots from one another. The autobiographical scenes of her disintegrating marriage take place with the background of lonely yet cramped cities. The three hand puppets discuss the facts of the Ramayana while textbook-like images pop up to accompany the debating. The story of Sita’s love for Rama is told from her feminine point of view; the scenes are drawn in the style of traditional Mughal art. Finally, Sita’s musical numbers where she fawns over Rama and sings the blues have a comical and cinematically dramatic feel appropriate for the sound of early 20th-century blues music and film.

“Sita Sings the Blues” is by no means the first attempt at dramatizing the ancient love story of Rama and Sita in a modern way. Like many of my peers, I grew up listening to my mother reading Amar Chitra Katha comic books that depict the religious Hindu myths for Indian-American children to learn the ancient stories. It was through these comic books that we learned who the various gods and goddesses were, their relationships with one another and their religious significance.

And who can forget the horn that blows in the beginning of every one of Ramanand Sagar’s television episodes based on the Ramayana? The series, although revolutionary in the way it depicted a significant Hindu text and made it accessible via free mass media so that Indians from all classes, occupations and regions across the subcontinent could enjoy the shared religious story, was somewhat painful to watch as a young child. Even to a young child, Sagar’s special effects were clumsy and the acting overly dramatic compared to Nickelodeon and MTV programming.

In 2003, my husband and I were lucky to see a dance performance of the Ramayana performed by the Lotus Fine Arts Productions. The choreography was stunningly sensual, the costumes vibrant and the tabla sound hip. Significantly, the production was among my first experiences watching dance accompanied with a story line.

Alas, Lotus Fine Arts Production no longer exists, but today’s youth can benefit from Paley’s animated depiction of the Ramayana for the same effect: conveying ancient Hindu mythology with innovative technology and a modern sensibility. You, too, will find “Sita Sings the Blues” worth crooning about.

Kavita Ramdya is the author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America.”

http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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