I watched this before I read the Ramayana, and it did warp my perception of Rama and the relationship dynamic between him and Sita. After reading, I came back and watched it again. Before starting, I felt frustrated that so much was taken out of context. Upon my second viewing, I was able to see the story the director is telling. It is Sita’s story.
In the Ramayana Sita is nothing more than a supplemental character. We never explore her inner, emotional world as the audience. We never gain insight to what it feels like to love her husband so much that she renounces everything and lives in the forest with him for fourteen years, during which she is kidnapped and held hostage for years by Ravana. We don’t know what goes through her mind as Rama rejects her after the great war between him and Ravana, when she finally gets to see him and be held by him and he won’t touch her. We don’t learn what she feels about being abandoned in the forest AGAIN, while pregnant, after once proving her fidelity. These are merely parts of Rama’s story. We learn only about how hard it is for Rama during these times of choosing his kingly dharma over his husbandly dharma.
In the epic, the only time we as the audience gain any insight into Sita’s personality is when she asks the Mother (Earth) to take her back if she has always been true to Rama at the end of the story. It’s like going out in a blaze of glory. She might as well of had a cigarette between her lips and middle fingers up as she dived into the chasm.
In Sita Sings the Blues the telling of the Ramayana is incredibly simplified and some parts are left out altogether, but the order of events and symbolic meanings are discussed by the narrators. I think the story is still told, and the meanings of Rama’s actions are discussed. So while someone who has never read or heard the story of the Ramayana might have their perception skewed a certain way about the characters (read: Rama), those who know the story can appreciate that the focus is actually on what Sita was going through, her evolution and transformation, and how someone of present-day responds to her story.
The telling of the Ramayana from Sita’s side is accompanied by a modern parallel story of the director, Nina, and her (ex)husband, Dave, and also by Annette Henshaw, a 1920’s jazz singer telling tales of love and woe through her beautiful voice. This exemplifies the power of myth. It is universal and relevant, regardless of time frame, culture, or the specifics of circumstance. Sita’s story is not unpacked in the epic, we must do that for her to find more intimate parts of ourselves as we experience what we believe she could have experienced.
The love is unconditional from Sita to Rama. That is what most people know about her if they know anything at all: She represents the perfect, austere woman (wife) and unconditional love. She trusts fully that if she follows her dharma all will be as it should. And in a way, that’s true. However, she’s rejected by the person whose name is the beating of her heart and the pumping of her blood for supposedly doing something that she almost died refusing to do – making sweet love to Ravana and partaking in his luxurious lifestyle while a prisoner in Lanka.
Personally, I’d be pissed. I’d cause a scene. I think I might even try to claw his eyes out with my dirty fingernails so at the vey least I give him a gnarly infection. Sita, on the other hand, asks the god of fire, Agni, to protect her as she walks into the pyre created for her on the battlefield if she has always been true to her beloved. She is untouched by the flames. She forgives Rama and says she understands when he explains that his duty caused him to behave in such a way.
After returning to Ayodhya and ruling together for years, the people are still mistrusting of her and what she did during her time in Lanka. This causes Rama to again renounce her. She, while pregnant with twins, wants to go visit the sages of the forest and he thinks, “Perfect, I’ll get Lakshmana (his brother) to take her there and leave her.” He won’t even explain or do it himself.
And Sita accepts it! She lives with the sages of the forest who know her truest nature and raises the sons of the King of Ayodhya in the ashrams of the forest. They grow up learning the songs that tell of Rama’s successes.
Nina, the present day female protagonist, supports her husband as he gets a job overseas. They are in love and she doesn’t doubt that. Then a month passes before he makes contact with her, and his way of smoothing it over is to ask her to move there with him. She doesn’t get upset. Instead she sees it as a symbol of their love, they are still married, and he wants to be together.
She arrives and he is distant. Sexually disinterested. Still she doesn’t react in anger, she patiently accepts his actions.
A time later she must fly back to New York for a work trip and while there, her husband reaches out to her via email to end their relationship. No explanation. Just raw pain.
Still, she only begs him to come back. She loves him unconditionally.
Up to a point.
This is the beautiful part of both stories, and of the music presented in the film. There is a cut off. No matter who we are, or what our goddess destiny is, we only take so much shit from a partner who doesn’t return that love.
Years later, Rama hears the voices of his sons in the forest, and immediately knows who they are. He begs Sita to come back home, if she could just once more prove her purity, for the people. She does, at the same time she peaces out. She’s had it.
Nina eventually pulls herself up off the floor, gets a new apartment, carries on throughout her days, and the film ends with her reading the Ramayana. She’s been disrespected, and she must now take care of herself and move forward, even if it’s painful for a while.
For all of us, at some point, enough is enough. Even as the goddess of unconditional love, Sita knew when her boundaries had been disrespected and she chose to turn back into the self. We all do, really. We know when it's time to let go, to move on, to change.
Whether we choose to ignore that knowing or take action is up to us.