Friday, April 25, 2008

Animating the Ramayana

Wired has an interview with American animator Nina Paley, whose Sita Sings the Blues is a musical adaptation of the epic Ramayana.

In Thai culture, the ancient Hindu epic has been adapted as the Ramakien.

Paley's story is told in parallel with the breakup of her own marriage. She rendered the feature-length, animated story in Flash animation, watercolor paints and rotoscoping, all by herself in her home office. The film is making its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, which started on Wednesday and runs until May 4.

Here's is an excerpt from the Wired article:

Wired: What is your movie about?

Nina Paley: Sita Sings the Blues is a musical, animated personal interpretation of the Indian epic the Ramayana. The aspect of the story that I focus on is the relationship between Sita and Rama, who are gods incarnated as human beings, and even they can't make their marriage work [laughs].

Wired: And that ties in with the film's second narrative.

Paley: Right, and then there's my story. I'm just an ordinary human, who also can't make her marriage work. And the way that it fails is uncannily similar to the way Rama and Sita's [relationship fails]. Inexplicable yet so familiar. And the question that I asked and the question people still ask is, "Why"? Why did Rama reject Sita? Why did my husband reject me? We don't know why, and we didn't know 3,000 years ago. I like that there's really no way to answer the question, that you have to accept that this is something that happens to a lot of humans.

While being able to apply the ancient story as a parable for contemporary problems is great, quite simply, I like the animation style. It reminds me of Genndy Tartakovsky's work on Samurai Jack or Star Wars: Clone Wars. And I wonder if there are any Thai animators who would dare to take on the Ramakien, and not be afraid to make it an edgy, thrill-packed adventure that would appeal to adults, as well as kids.

Thai animation so far, at least in the recent cases The Life of Buddha and Nak, has been aimed squarely at kids, and as a result, is a little too self-consciously cutesy, polite and dull for my taste.


  1. From an e-mail from, to whom I submitted the Wired link:


    I have followed her work for years. Her site is here.

    She used to post the movie online bit by bit.

    The cool thing is that it is set to the tremendous singing of Annette Hanshaw.

  2. The movie premiered at the Berlinale and was shown again yesterday at the Berlin House of World Cultures. Judging from viewers reactions, it has met with a favourable reception by the audience.

    "Sita" has a great mixture of visual styles - ranging from the roughly animated comic-stripesque story of Nina's seperation, across Javanese shadow play, traditional Indian mural paintings to colorful pop-art animation. The whole movie is refreshingly self-ironic in the way that it treats its subject from a critical yet funny and sympathetic distance. Especially the idea not to use a script to narrate the Ramayana but to let three Indians talk freely about the epic and to use their conversation as a means to tell the story gave the movie a sense of spontaneity and authenticity, avoiding the conservative dogmatism so often connected with ancient epics.

    "Sita" is full of fascinating contrasts (an epic Indian heroine in brash pink sings heartbreaking jazz songs). As the title suggests, "Sita Sings the Blues" puts the Ramayana's female protagonists at the center and breaks with the tradition of unquestioned worship of Rama. It even tries to evoke sympathy for the demon king Ravana (he is a faithful believer in the gods, he does not rape Sita...) thus highlighting a very nuanced approach to the subject, far from the black-and-white dichotomies which have been used in the past by (Hindu-)nationalists to justify their overlordship. "Sita" has a female fingerprint on it, emphasizing how Sita's faith and self-determination can be a source of strength for today's victims of machismo and paternalism. Its message is modern while never betraying its origins in ancient Indian culture and arts.

    Thinking of recent uninspired animated Thai movies, the American-born "Sita Sings the Blues" has everything these movies lack, in the words of Kong Rithdee about Nang Nak: "... Something is lacking here: the wit, the shrewdness, the cinematic fluency, a script that would play the traditional-contemporary swing with humour and flair, the independence from its assorted influences, and maybe the boldness to claim that independence."

    Hopefully this movie finds its way to Thailand in order to give people a glimpse of how traditional material can still be meaningful today.

  3. I would love to screen "Sita" in Thailand - and recommendations on where to send it?

  4. Nina, the Directory at might have some distributors or venues you could try. I'll send you an e-mail with more detail.

  5. Hi Nina, any plans of a screening in india? Have you tried and met resistance?

  6. Nina recently managed to make her movie freely accessible on the internet. After having solved some copyright issues regarding the songs used in the movie, anyone can now download it in several formats. Look at this page:

    Again, this brilliant movie is highly recommended!


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