Sins against Sita: A review of SITA SINGS THE BLUES
by Saurav Basu on 30 Aug 2009 6 Comments

For some time now, Hindus have been exercised over biased Western agencies indulging in institutionalized undermining of Hindu religious philosophy, culture, figures and icons through prejudiced application of experimental social sciences masquerading as foolproof scientific scholarship. Such discriminatory tendencies are not isolated to academia, but ubiquitous in those populations subscribing to a particular civilizational worldview, as witnessed by the tens of thousands of Hinduphobic websites funded by Christian evangelists and Islamic fundamentalists.

The so-called spectacular success of “Sita sings the blues”[2], by Nina Paley, an American non-Hindu woman, raises questions as superior indigenous-made animation films based on the Ramayana, like Hanuman[3], have not received even a passing mention in the Western press. It is however, true that the free dissemination of the movie has given it wider publicity.

Nina Paley was never interested in Hinduism or India until her husband, while working in India, injustice dumped her for another woman. She claims in an interview to have read multiple versions of the Ramayana, and to have found some parallels with what happened to her. So she decided to use the Ramayana to expose her husband’s heartlessness to the whole world, something Sita, subject of a ‘patriarchal’ and ‘oppressive’ Hindu society, could never envisage.

It was this sacrificing spirit of Sita which captured the imagination of an entire civilization.  Even the proponent of a muscular Hinduism like Vivekananda could but marvel at the forbearance of Sita, for “through all this suffering she experiences, there is not one harsh word against Rama. She takes it as her own duty, and performs her own part in it. Think of the terribleof her being exiled to the forest! But Sita knows no bitterness... India says, ‘We destroy evil by suffering, until evil is nothing to us, it becomes positive enjoyment.’”[4]

Yet this explains how this unjust film attempts to violently fit the great Hindu epic with its immense complexities into a mundanely depressing post-split atmosphere which thousands of Americans experience daily. Nina Paley’s frankly boring sob story runs parallel to the Ramayana story. To heighten the egoistic retelling of her story, the Ramayana is diminished of all but the bare necessities, while trivializing its uplifting and redeeming message to humanity. The inspiration for such butcher-like brutalization of the original text must have come from Aubrey Menen’s ridiculous retelling of the same, which she acknowledges in the credits

The reception of Hindus to the movie has been mixed. While neo-materialist complex-ridden Hindus have showered praise on this ‘exceptional’ film, others have expressed dissatisfaction at her handling of the epic. The most caustic criticism has come from Hindu activists aware of the irreverence and abuse of Hindu deities in American academic scholarship and popular culture [5] with the hypocritical excuse of popularizing Hindu culture amongst those who have never heard of it. 

Paley considers this expression of indignation by native Hindus the work of right wing Hindu nationalists. She claims to have received hate mail from them, and later even cancels their Hindu identity for being shorn off the ideal of non violence, the supposedly quintessential Hindu trait. But this begs the question, how can the worshipers of Yahweh, the jealous god who devoured millions, be considered legitimate dispensers of “certificates of Hinduness” based on a relative Hindu attribute?

Moreover, why should those who regurgitate post-modern puke, which defines pre-19th century Hinduism as a barely concealed masochistic faith which should revel in Gandhian femininity, find Sita’s submission to Rama objectionable? This coming from a self-confessed feminist, the ideology which threatens violence at the drop of a hat whether against bras or familial institutions, is too much of an aberration to be glossed over. Why feminists prefer a masculine mode of confrontation is something which requires further exploration.

That the film is meant to be deliberately provocative is obvious. Controversy adds to celebrity value. The three dimwitted recently emigrated Indian Americans in the gossipy narrative have been retained only for their accents, to give the film the contrived prop of modern native authenticity. The white man’s favourite emancipated high caste and pre-Hindu woman wonders aloud whether Sita became pregnant in the Pushpka Vimana or had she submitted to Ravana’s charms. Casting aspersions on Sita’s chastity and doubting Hanuman are not only irreverent, but a direct attack on the faith of millions.

Another liberal Ravana fan-boy besotted with some fanatical Dravidian nationalist fantasy calls Sita a “bloodthirsty woman” for not escaping with Hanuman when she had the opportunity, and causing the death of so many people in the consequent war.  The poverty of knowledge is acutely manifest in such crooked morality since Ravana, the tormentor of the three folks, had a history of carrying away womenfolk [6].

As a proud Ksatriya woman, it was a matter of honour for her husband to rescue her and destroy forever the power of the evil. To elicit the idea of lust, a cheap porn movie’s dialogue is used to describe Sita’s physical body, especially her breasts as round, firm and juicy! That the film is not innocent of deliberating violating Hindu sentiments and defaming heroes is explicit in repeated scenes of Rama physically abusing Sita.

Paley’s Rama kicks Sita like a football into the fire, punches her like a vanquished boxing rival, and painfully treads on her like a doormat. This is sheer intellectual fraud as neither Valmiki nor any of the 300-odd Ramayana versions has ever remotely suggested this abuse. The idea of subjecting a woman to physical violence was anathema to Hindu ethos. The sinister message being conveyed through these scenes is that domestic violence against Hindu women is not only condoned, but propagated unabated, by religious values which derive their sanction from the conduct of the great Hindu god, Rama.

In Semitic phraseology, “Reform requires uprooting the very substructure of Hinduism itself.” While one does not know if Paley nurtures a hate Hindu agenda, this liberty with text and meaning before a predominantly Western audience unlikely to have read or heard the Ramayana before ensures it will view the scenes as based on authentic tradition.

Paley’s work has been reviewed as a “feminist subversion” of the epic. She claims her work expresses dissent against Sita’s passive conduct, but nothing is further from the truth. Paley’s Sita is a caricature wallowing in utter helplessness and she has miserably failed to rescue Sita from a misleading “footnote status” in the Ramayana.[7] Valmiki’s Sita is a complex figure whose her righteous indignation and dissent are well etched out. When an ambivalent Rama hesitates to take her along into exile, she lashes out at him as “one who is a woman in the form of a man”[8].

In the jungle, she questions Rama whether it is dharma to kill Rakshasas who had never attacked them. Yet Sita asserts of her own volition that Rama as her husband is her presiding deity. Sita immerses herself in her husband for she is exclusively devoted, fondly attached and determined to die if disunited from Rama. A grateful Rama says “without you, even heaven does not catch fancy at this moment.” The centrality of Sita’s character, internalized by generations of Hindu women, is her forbearance. In Canto 33, Ayodhyakanda, Valmiki pays homage to this ideal of forbearance which is real charity, devotion to truth, path to fame and piety and the ultimate essence of all scriptures. 

Sita’s sense of repose amidst her trials and tribulations give meaning and substance to being and becoming the perfect woman. The idea of sacrifice is so integrated with the Hindu idea of love, that separation out of gender egoism is anathema to those grounded in the Hindu way of life. Madhu Kishwar says of her field study, “Sita is not perceived as being a mindless creature who meekly suffers maltreatment at the hands of her husband without complaining. Nor does accepting Sita as an ideal mean endorsing a husband's right to behave unreasonably… Sita is seen as a person whose sense of dharma is superior to and more awe inspiring than that of Rama - someone who puts even maryada purushottam Rama - the most perfect of men - to shame... she is everyone's dream of an ideal, loving daughter-in-law.”[9]

In Hindu tradition, dissenting against Rama’s heartlessness is an expected emotion, neither irreverent nor unexpected. Rama despite His divine attributes is understood not to be infallible in his human avatar, which he himself admits during a supernatural intervention by Brahma in the first agnipariksha episode. This is evident in the later vernacular devotional epic renderings by Kamban and Tulsidas, where Rama is exonerated of his sins by inventing the imagery of a maya sita. But while these renderings became affectionate household readings, the supernatural apologia remained unconvincing. Even today, people of Mithila do not want to marry their daughters into families living in Avadh, or anywhere west of Mithila. Hindu women prefer Shiva-like husbands, which satisfactorily explains disapproval of Rama as husband, yet his acceptability as the virtuous son.

Ultimately, more problematic is Paley’s intellectual paucity as she knows no Indian language and has only read an abridged translation of the Valmiki Ramayana by Arshia Sattar. There is also a sense of intellectual dishonesty in her claim to being a pioneering feminist rendering of the Ramayana story, as she has been preceded by about 450 years by the dexterous Bengali, Candravati, who composed a  Ramayana  ballad in eastern Mymensingh in medieval Bengal.

Rama is not the centre of Candravati’s narrative. He is only a foil against whose false steps Sita’s actions and characters are highlighted. The only aspect of Rama which is stressed here is the lover. Candravati openly questions, challenges and punctures the ideology of her times...Though she criticizes Rama every now and then, she does not criticize Sita for acting according to the dominant ideology.  [10]

Despite the film’s failures and dubious ideological underpinnings, it does have odd flashes of brilliance. The satirical song “Rama’s great, Rama’s good, Rama does as Rama should” to some extent apprehends the conflicts of dharma and what it means to carry the weight of greatness, and what personal price the Mighty may have to pay for it.

Notes & references
1] Hyperlink to Hinduphobia Online Hatred, Extremism and Bigotry Against Hindus,
3] Hanuman film might not boast of rotoscopy and other high sounding techniques, but its characters are visually impressive, cute and lovable. 
4] Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works - Volume 4, Advaita Ashram 2001, p.76,
6] Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda, Canto 20
7] Paley’s Sita sings classic jazz songs for most part of the film, and does not really enhance our understanding of her or offer any fresh insights into her character.
8] Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda, Canto 27
9] Yes to Sita, no to Rama, Madhu Kishwar
Earlier published in Questioning Ramayanas, Paula Richman
10] Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Candravati Ramayana: feminizing the Rama-Tale in Faces of the feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India [ed. Mandakranta Bose], OUP,  p.183-191. The author also informs us of similar women Ramayanas in Telegu

The author is researching a book on Swami Vivekananda

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