Sita Sings the Blues Sparks Controversy in Queens

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 21, 2011 8:40PM

2011_07_sita.jpg Urbana native Nina Paley's animated feature Sita Sings the Blues found heaps of praise when it appeared in 2008, winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and garnering lots of Big Apple love upon its U.S. debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. Eventually the quirky labor of love found its most eloquent and highest profile champion in Roger Ebert, who penned a virtual love letter to the film. The reception has not been as warm this month in Queens, where a planned screening has run into protests from some in the Hindu community.

Far from intending any offense, Paley describes the work as a personal interpretation of the Indian epic the Ramayana and points out that the playful take, wherein the plight of the incarnated gods mirror and speak to the feelings about her own marital difficulties which she tried to convey, was the subject of a lengthy and positive piece in Hinduism Today. The screening which generated so much controversy was organized by devout Hindu Rohan Narine with for an intended Hindu audience. When objections were made at his original location, his local temple, the screening was moved to a Hindu senior center, where it was cancelled again. Moving it to a "neutral" non-religious location, the Starlite Pavillion, resulted only in an email campaign that eventually convinced the venue to cancel the screening a third time. As of this week, Narine has given up on finding a public venue to accommodate the screening and will be showing the movie in his living room and inviting discussion afterwards, at least according to the comments on Paley's blog posting on the topic.

Sita Sings the Blues
struck us as really clever, especially in its incorporation of the music of sultry 20s jazz chanteuse Annette Hanshaw, who provided a key inspiration for the filmmaker's vision. Although Paley's work struck a chord with many viewers, her choice to treat a religious text as source material for a secular vision courted (and received) criticism from the devout from the very beginning. As a result of copyright difficulties encountered with the songs which were used, the film is released under the "copyleft" method, meaning anyone can show it at any time and that thousands of protest-free screenings have already successfully occurred. While we defend anyone's right to disagree and even protest it, we're troubled that Paley's art has in this case been effectively banished from a public setting. On the other hand, if it gets more attention for the film (and notices in the Wall Street Journal tend to do that), then it may end up a net positive for Paley and for free speech as well.

Sita Sings the Blues can be watched or downloaded for free from the filmmaker's website.