Saturday, August 6, 2011

Insulting Hinduism or Transforming a Community? My Take on Sita Sings the Blues

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)


  1. Hey Shiv, I'm loving that you posted your own take on the blog. I really like the clear perspective you presented. And was surprised to see your conclusion about sexism within Hinduism and that a Hindu should probably be the one creating this film. However, I wish you came to the panel discussion to hear the debate about cultural appropriation with our community youths and the director! Paley's idea was that there really is no such thing! She believes culture belongs to all ...part of a "shared and universal cultural heritage" and the idea of owning culture as a commons inhibits the growth and progression of art. Her view of the film is not as a work of Hinduism, although I myself often take some offense to a particular scene in the movie and Hinduism is undeniably a huge aspect of the film. I am not an avid supporter of the film, nor do I take a stance on cultural appropriation. But I just wanted to let you know of the opposing view. Once again, I really do support your effort to research and watch this film. I believe it should be discussed.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I haven't heard of this animation and now hearing about it is reminiscent of my disgusting encounters with white corporations that appropriate Hinduism and "Indianness" like lululemon. Reminds me of the white girls that would say things like, "you're hindu? I love yoga!"

    The tale of Ram and Sita has always been a point of criticism from "western feminist" in critiquing what they refer to as "eastern women." In university, I took a sociology course and we examined the movie, "Fire" in the most limited ways. Focusing solely on the sexism "inherent in Indian culture." It was incredibly frustrating [and spiritually draining] to be in that space.

    Thanks again for this great review...I'm going to check out this animation now.

  3. A few words. This movie has indeed a great way to bring up some issues that are prevalent in our culture. Hinduism is the only religion that worships the female, ie Durga Ma and Saraswati Ma. When we greet eachother we say, "Seeta Ram." We say "Seeta" first because we hold women in high regard. This movie is completely skewed. I absolutely hate the part when the kids are sarcastically singing praises to Lord Rama. I haven't actually read the Ramayan, but I seen some parts of the religious movie, heard sermons and read those Amar Chitra Katha comics on it. I don't feel I have enough knowledge on the Ramayan to back up what Paley was saying, but I honestly think she missed the whole part about not disrespecting a piece of scripture that is so sacred. It's a bit disrespectful of yourself to call Rama stupid as well. I think it's best we actually read the Ramayan rather than base our opinion on what some lady misinterpreted.

  4. So Hindus are not aware of the sexism in the Ramayan according to Paley and the organizers of the film/discussion? Are Hindus morons? Sister, sister Paley is so concerned with the downtrodden Sita she wants to bring her mocking, cheap production and shove it down our throats and call it enlightenment? The folks who are responsible for giving her the boot, kudos to them!

  5. Interesting review.. I like the Ramayana a lot and look at Sita going back to her mother as triumph, not necessarily victimhood.. and there are women in the Ramayana like Shabari who are upheld as the greatest devotees.. my mother used to say that every wife should be Sita only if the husbands were Ram..

  6. I am pretty sure swami's, sadhu's, pandits, pujari's, etc. have debated the Ramayana throughout the course of history. I understand that Paley's reference to Ramayana but if she would've looked a little further she would have seen that 'Shakti' worship is an integral part of some branches of Hinduism, and that there is not a a purist version of sexism that engulfs the religion. If she would've looked much further, Paley would've seen that the 'Shakti' deity Kali is held in high esteem throughout many branches of the religion, for instance in many 'murti's' she is seen standing over the destroyer of the 'Trimurti', Shiva. Hinduism is a complex religion and it encompasses many schools of thought, however, one of the most important aspects of the religion itself is respect for women. In the case of the Ram I think Vishnu is illustrating that even though Ram may be god incarnate that he (Ram) nor anyone else in this world is perfect, including God. There is much philosophy and much depth to the Hindu scriptures that it ought not to be taken for face value. I believe that Paley is missing the larger picture, as such the case it is her opinion and critique and should be respected as such, one does not have to agree with her, though it is food for thought. Good post Shiv.