The film uses a pared-down adaptation of the legend that retains many of its finer details while adopting a perspective sympathetic towards Sita; in the director's words, the film is "a tale of truth, justice and a woman’s cry for equal treatment."
The plot joins the legend at the exile of prince Rama from his father's court, at the behest of his father's favorite queen, Kaikeyi. Having earned the right to any single favor by saving the king's life, Kaikeyi attempts to secure her own son's inheritance over the eldest and favorite, Rama, by ordering him banished from the court. Sita, Rama's wife, determines to accompany her beloved husband, although the woods are dangerous and overrun with demons and evil spirits. The demon king Ravana, encouraged by his spiteful ogress sister, hears of Sita's beauty and determines to kidnap her. He sends a golden hind past their dwelling to distract Rama, who tries to impress Sita by hunting the hind into the woods. In his absence, Ravana abducts Sita and demands that she submit to him on pain of death. Sita remains staunchly devoted to Rama and refuses to entertain the idea; Ravana sets a deadline for the ultimatum and Sita waits faithfully for Rama to rescue her.
Aided by the monkey prince Hanuman, Rama eventually discovers Sita's location and brings the monkey army to assist in her rescue. Ravana is slain and Sita restored to her husband, although he expresses serious doubts concerning her fidelity during her confinement. She submits to a trial by fire, a test of her purity; upon throwing herself into the flames, she is immediately rescued by the gods, who all proclaim her devotion and fidelity.
She accompanies Rama back to the palace, and soon falls pregnant. Lingering doubts still play on Rama's mind, however, and after overhearing one of his subjects beating and ejecting an unfaithful consort (claiming he is no Rama to accept and forgive her unfaithfulness), he orders his reluctant brother Lakshman to abandon Sita in the forest. In the company of ascetics she gives birth to her sons and raises them to love and praise their absent father. Years later, Rama overhears their hymns of adoration to their father and locates their dwelling. Distressed and disappointed by Rama's continuing doubt on her purity during her reunion with Rama, Sita prays to the earth to swallow her as final proof of her purity and devotion and the prayer is duly answered, despite the pleas of Rama and Lakshman.
In an episode taken from the director's own life, animator Nina Paley starts the film living happily in a San Francisco apartment with her husband and cat. Her husband then accepts the offer of a six-month contract working in Trivandrum, India, and moves there alone to take up the position. After a month of no contact, he calls to inform his wife that the contract has been extended another year.
Bewildered by his callous indifference to their separation, Nina sublets their apartment, leaves their beloved cat behind and joins her husband in India. Upon her arrival he appears deeply unenthusiastic to be reunited and demonstrates neither affection nor sexual interest. A while later, Nina flies to a meeting in New York, where she receives a brief e-mail from her husband telling her that their relationship is over. Sad and alone, she stays in New York, finding comfort in a new cat and her study of the Ramayana.Sanjiv Jhaveri as Dave, Dasharatha, Dhobi, and Valmiki
Nina Paley as Nina
Aseem Chhabra as Shadow Puppet 1
Bhavana Nagulapally as Shadow Puppet 2
Manish Acharya as Shadow Puppet 3
Deepti Gupta as Kaikeyi
Debargo Sanyal as Rama
Reena Shah as Sita (Speaking)
Annette Hanshaw as Sita (Singing)
Pooja Kumar as Shurpanakha
Aladdin Ullah as Maricha and Hanuman
Nitya Vidyasagar as Luv and Kush
The film uses several different styles of animation to separate and identify the parallel narratives.
Episodes with dialogue from the Ramayana are enacted using painted figures of the characters in profile, which strongly resemble the 18th-century Indian tradition of Rajput painting. The Rajput style of brush painting was principally enacted on manuscripts and commonly employed in the telling of epics such as the Ramayana. In the film they serve as a more traditional style of dramatic narrative, although the dialogue is frequently ironic, inappropriately modern or otherwise humorous.
The background in each scene is usually static and the poses of each character are kept minimal, with movement achieved by simply transporting the character across the screen in its set position. Speech is enacted by alternating the set pose of the face with a slightly liquified version where the jaw is lower.
Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya provided the voices for three silhouettes, traditional Indian shadow puppets. They link episodes of the Ramayana with a lively, unscripted, discussion of their personal impressions and knowledge of the epic. They provide context and commentary for the story, which has innumerable incarnations and regional variations.
The voices are clearly contemporary and somewhat irreverent, unlike their visualisations, which further establishes the theme of contrast between "ancient tragedy and modern comedy"; Chhaya Natak shadow theatre, for example, was commonly used in retellings of the Ramayana.
During these sections, the ideas and contradictions raised over the course of the puppets' discussions are visualised in animated photographic compositions in the background.
Episodes set to certain songs performed by jazz singer Annette Hanshaw are visualised, with Sita as the singing performer, using the strikingly modern technique of vector graphic animation.
The slick, bold style – driven by digital animation software – is at odds with the somewhat rustic quality of the old musical recordings but allows close synchronisation with the vocals. The smooth, repetitive, side-scrolling movement it effects assists in suspending the musical episode from the more consistent narrative plot.
The modern, more personal element to the contemporary part of the story is narrated using the rough, energetic Squigglevision technique of traditional animation. It conveys the kind of restlessness inherent in the story and achieves a more light-hearted, universal tone with its simple, highly stylised renderings of character and environments.
The production was largely completed by Nina Paley, with support from Jake Friedman in the "Battle of Lanka" scene, primarily using 2D computer graphics and Flash Animation.
In addition to the central numbers recorded by Hanshaw, music was provided by Rohan, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Nik Phelps, Todd Michaelsen and Reena Shah of the duo My Pet Dragon and by Pierre-Jean Duffour, composer and musician for the band Masaladosa. Reena Shah contributed the voice of the Sita character, in addition to choreographing and performing the dance sequences rotoscoped by Paley for the animation.
Paley estimated her total hours of work on the film to 9,360 and calculated she needed 6,240 people to see the 1.5 hour long film to make an "attention profit".
The film uses a number of 1920s Annette Hanshaw recordings. Although the filmmaker initially made sure these recordings were not covered by US copyright law, a number of other copyright issues surfaced, including state laws prior to US federal copyright law on recordings, rights to the compositions and the right to synchronize the recordings with images. These recordings were protected by state commerce and business laws passed at the time in the absence of applicable federal laws and were never truly "public domain". In addition, the musical composition itself, including aspects such as the lyrics to the songs, the musical notation, and products derived from using those things, is still under copyright.
Without a distributor, Nina Paley was unable to pay the approximately $220,000 that the copyright holders originally demanded. Eventually, a fee of $50,000 was negotiated. Paley took out a loan to license the music in early 2009.
In July 2011, Nina Paley made a protest video regarding the film's deletion from YouTube in Germany due to what she regards as fraudulent take-down notice under the aegis of GEMA, Germany's major music and performance rights organization, but which may be an instance of a larger on-going conflict regarding copyright and royalties between YouTube and GEMA.
On January 18, 2013, Paley announced that she has changed the Creative Commons license for the film from "CC-BY-SA" (the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-alike 3.0 Unported license) to "CC-0" (public domain); she made the ownership rights change in response to the continual red tape of rights procurement, even under the share-alike license.
Due to terms of the music license, one limited DVD pressing of 4,999 copies was printed. The film was released for free download starting in early March, 2009 "at all resolutions, including broadcast-quality, HD, and film-quality image sequences", at the time licensed under "CC-BY-SA". The freely downloaded files counted as "promotional copies" and were exempt from payments to the copyright holders of the songs.
The full film can also be viewed in low-resolution streaming video on the web site for WNET, a PBS member station in New York City. WNET broadcast the film on March 7, 2009.
Nina Paley plans to make money through voluntary payments, ancillary products, sponsorships, the aforementioned limited DVD sales, and possibly other methods.
A cornerstone of the distribution model is the "creator-endorsed" logo, developed by Nina Paley in cooperation with QuestionCopyright.org. Although anyone is free to distribute the film, distributors who do so while giving a part of the profits to the artist can get the artist's endorsement and use the "creator-endorsed" logo on their promotional materials. Exclusive right to distribute 35mm and HDCam prints of the film is split between GKIDS for all theaters East of the Mississippi River, and Shadow Distribution for all theaters west of the Mississippi River.
The film can also be rented via DVD on Netflix as of March 17, 2010. When asked by a media provider on behalf of Netflix in April 2010 if she would also offer the film via the company's on-demand streaming service in exchange for a limited amount of money, Nina requested that the film be streamed either DRM-free or with an addendum telling viewers where the film was available for download. When the internet television service refused to meet these conditions due to a "No Bumpers" policy, Nina refused to accept their offer, citing her desire to uphold her principled opposition to DRM.
Paley has qualified this distribution strategy as a financial success, citing that it earned $132,000 from March 2009 to March 2010.
Since its release, Sita Sings the Blues has attracted limited but consistent acclaim from critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports that 100% of critics have given the film a positive review, based on 33 reviews, with an 8.3/10 review average. The film also holds a score of 94 on the review aggregator website Metacritic as of April 23, 2010.
Film critic Roger Ebert on the Chicago Sun-Times enthused, "I am enchanted. I am swept away. I am smiling from one end of the film to the other. It is astonishingly original. It brings together four entirely separate elements and combines them into a great whimsical chord... To get any film made is a miracle. To conceive of a film like this is a greater miracle."
The New York Times too praised the film's ingenuity, commenting that "[it] evokes painting, collage, underground comic books, Mumbai musicals and 'Yellow Submarine' (for starters)," and praised Paley for her use of 2D animation: "A Pixar or DreamWorks extravaganza typically concludes with a phone book’s worth of technical credits. Ms. Paley did everything in “Sita” — an amazingly eclectic, 82-minute tour de force — by herself."
Although The Hollywood Reporter declared the film to be "a rather rarified effort that will probably appeal more to adults than to children," it described it as "charming" and commented that, "Arriving amidst a tidal wave of overblown and frequently charmless big studio efforts, "Sita Sings the Blues" is a welcome reminder that when it comes to animation bigger isn't necessarily better."
The blog Sepia Mutiny reviewed the film noting that it has "lovely, highly stylized characters" and that Paley stayed "reasonably faithful" to the original story.
The film has drawn controversy from a number of sides. In April 2009, a group called the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti started a petition calling for a complete ban on the movie and initiation of legal action against all those who have been involved in its production and marketing, believing its portrayal of the Ramayana to be offensive, with some members going so far as to call it "a derogatory act against the entire Hindu community."
When the San Jose Museum of Art screened the film, a protestor said: "I'm very angry about this film and feel very humiliated by the portrayal of Lord Ram in this very perverted way...negative portrayals of Hinduism cause discrimination and religious intolerance." Another protestor at the same event suggested: "Trying to promote India's rich culture in such a way is appalling."
Nina Paley expressed surprise at the adverse reaction, saying "I thought it might be a bit controversial, but I wasn’t fully aware of how art and artists are major targets of some right-wing nationalist groups in India. I always imagine an audience of smart, compassionate people I’d enjoy spending time with." However, in an interview with India-West, she did acknowledge that Lord Ram is not depicted well in the film. She added to the source: "No one has to like it."
Sita Sings the Blues has won a number of awards.Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival), Feb. 2008, Crystal Bear - Special Mention, Gen-14+, Germany
Annecy, June 2008, Cristal grand prix for best feature film, France
Avignon, June 2008, Prix Tournage for Best American Feature Film, France
Athens International Film Festival, Sept. 2008, Best Script Award, Greece
Ottawa International Animation Festival, Sept. 2008, Honorable Mention for Best Animated Feature, Canada
Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinéma, Oct. 2008, Grand Prix Z Télé, Grand Prize chosen by the public, Canada
Expotoons, Oct. 2008, "First Mention" (runner-up), Feature Films, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Leeds International Film Festival, Nov. 2008, Golden Owl Competition - Special Mention, UK
Asheville Film Festival, Nov. 2008, Runner-up, Best Feature, Fiction, NC, USA
Starz Denver Film Festival, Nov 2008, Fox 31 Emerging Filmmaker Award, CO, USA
Gotham Independent Film Awards, Dec 2008, Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, NYC, NY, USA
Les Nuits Magiques, Dec 2008, Audience Award for Best Feature Film, Begles, France
Santa Fe Film Festival, Dec 2008, Best Animation, NM, USA
Boulder International Film Festival, Feb 2009, Best Animated Film, CO, USA
Film Independent’s Spirit Awards, Feb 2009, Nominee, Acura Someone to Watch Award, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Fargo Film Festival, March 2009, Ruth Landfield Award and Honorable Mention, Best Animation, ND, USA
Festival Monstra, March 2009 Jury’s Special Prize, Lisbon, Portugal
Cairo International Film Festival for Children, March 2009, Jury’s Special Mention, Cairo, Egypt
Tiburon International Film Festival, March 2009, Best Animation, Tiburon, CA, USA
Big Cartoon Festival, March 2009, Grand Prix Sirin, Krasnoyarsk, Russia
Animabasaui5, March 2009, Jury Special Award, Bilbao, Spain
Akron Film Festival, April 2009, Best Feature Film, Akron, OH, USA
Philadelphia CineFest, April 2009, Archie Award for Best First Time Director, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Salem Film Festival, April 2009, Grand Jury Award, Salem, OR, USA
Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, April 2009, Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature, Los Angeles CA, USA
Talking Pictures Festival, May 2009, Best Animated Film, Evanston, IL, USA
Connecticut Film Festival, June 2009, Best Animated Film, Danbury, CT, USA
Festival Internacional de Cine DerHumALC, June 2009, Signis Award, Best Film of the Official Competition, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Indianapolis International Film Festival, July 2009, American Spectrum, Best Feature, Indianapolis, IN, USA
In April 2009, the film inspired a Bangkok high fashion line designed by Roj Singhakul, titled "Sita Sings the Blues".