After hearing about the controversial film "Sita Sings the Blues" from friends, reading about it in the NYTimes, and receiving dozens of emails about it through mailing lists, I finally saw the thing for myself. I needed to know what all the hooplah was about.
Sita Sings the Blues is an animated film created by Nina Paley. It juxtaposes the love story of Ram and Sita, (from the Hindu scripture the Ramayana) with Paley's own relationship story. Paley presents the story of Ram and Sita with a focus on the ways Ram abused Sita. Because of her own relationship woes, Paley really connected to Sita in this way. Sita's experience struck a chord with Paley so much so that she was inspired to create a film around it.
For those readers who're unfamiliar with the Ram-Sita saga, here's a brief recap: Sita was madly in love and devoted to Ram, and was captured by the evil king Ravan who wanted to make her his wife. Sita refused over and over again. When Ram rescued Sita from the evil king, he doubted her loyalty to him and made her walk through fire to prove her purity. Sita's purity would be proven if she made it through the fire unscathed, which she did. Later on, however, Ram's followers talked smack about him because they didn't believe Sita was in fact faithful during her captivity. To protect his pride, Ram banished Sita to the forest. Sita said she would prove her purity, AGAIN, by asking mother earth to take her back into the ground- which she did. So, in sum, Sita devotes her life to this man and literally walks through fire for him, only to be rejected because of his stupid pride.
Now, there is an obvious problem with the artistic liberty Paley took. Paley is not Hindu. She is not even South Asian. She is a white woman who did not grow up knowing Indian culture and Hinduism. As an outsider to a culture/religion, it is always smart to be careful with your approach. However, Paley perhaps did not use the greatest amount of care when she took the sacred story of Lord Ram and Sita out of its traditional context- in which Lord Ram's praises are sung and Sita's tribulations are given a back seat. In fact, her adaptation clearly criticizes the Hindu community for accepting Ram's sexism.
Moreover, Paley's choice of animation style does nothing to pacify her critics. Sita's body is hypersexualized, with large, round breasts propped up to her chin, a teeny-tiny waist, and voluptuous hips. Just take a look at the image above and tell me she doesn't look like an Indian Betty Boop?! I see how, to many people, this adds insult to injury.
However, in spite of Paley's cultural appropriation, I see a lot of merit in Sita Sings the Blues. It gives the Hindu community a mirror to look back at itself in, and a chance to change the traditional discourses we have around our scriptures. Paley didn't make up the scene where Ram asks Sita to walk through fire, or the scene where he banishes her to the forest. These are actual parts of Hindu scripture that millions of people look to for guidance in how to live their lives. In Hindu culture, Sita is seen as the ideal wife. Women are expected to try to be like her- to worship their husbands and do anything for them, even when their husbands don't reciprocate. Moreover, the story creates/reinforces the gender stereotype that women are worthless if they are not "pure," and tells us that being "pure" means only having sexual contact with one man- your husband- for your entire life. Going further, what if the evil king had raped Sita? The story suggests Ram would have acted no differently. Whether Sita consented to the sex does not seem to be an issue- she would have been thrown away for being touched by another man even if it was against her will.
This sexism in Hindu scripture should be dealt with, instead of ignored. Ignoring it means millions of people will continue to have their values shaped by stories like these and women will continue to have unfair, demeaning expectations placed upon them.
I see what Paley did to the Hindu community as similar to what Bill Cosby did to the Black community in 2004. Except, Bill Cosby is Black. Sometimes, in order for change to happen, dirty laundry needs to be aired out. But, maybe this laundry should have been aired out by a Hindu launderer...
And that's my two cents.
(If you want to judge for yourself, you can find the film here)