Homi Wadia, the director of Sampoorna Ramayana (1960), gave a message at the end of his film- “O Ram, your Ramayana will not come to a conclusion till the miseries of all Sitas of this land of Bharat are ended.” As the controversy over Adipurush, a film based on the great epic, feeds the troll army for its poorly scripted dialogues and VFX, one can’t help but look at the alternative efforts that have reimagined the Ramayana in different ways.
In the last few years, Indian film industries have seen a surge in films that claim to retell the story of mythological epics. Expectedly, the Ramayana has led the trail. While people have been well aware of the existence of several Ramayanas even before AK Ramanujan’s essay 300 Ramayans (that was later dropped from the syllabus of Delhi University), the cinematic depiction nearly always preferred the version of Ramacharitmanas written by Tulsidas. The popularity of this version could be gauged from the fact that Gita Press, an Uttar Pradesh-based publisher that has received the Gandhi Peace Prize this year, sells around 10 lakhs Ramacharitmanas every year.
Scholars at different times have claimed that the story of Ramacharitmanas was different from the original version written by Valmiki. However, there is a general agreement that the epic has always been read from a man’s perspective. The very title of the film Adipurush also emphasises the ‘Purushottam Ram’ that doesn’t provide space to any other protagonist to take centre-stage. In this schema of patriarchal readings, where does Sita lie?
From Ramanand Sagar’s televised epic to Adipurush, Sita has always been portrayed as meek and subservient to her husband Ram. Where her will fail to find any significance, her actions rather amplified patriarchal hegemony. In this context, there are very few films and documentaries that use the narratives of Sita in different ways—sometimes as a form of resistance, at other times breaking the stereotypes.
Laying Janaki to Rest
Madhureeta Anand’s documentary Laying Janaki to Rest (2006), tries to reimagine and explore the existence of narratives of Sita and their reverberation in the popular discourse of recent times. Shot in the early days of the 21st century, this film focuses on the ‘agnipariksha’ or the trial by fire that Sita was subjected to prove her chastity. The 30-minute short documentary starts with Madhureeta looking through her marriage albums where she finds herself being married to her loved one at the age of 19.
The scene jumps to interviews that portray the views of the common people regarding a married woman. One old security guard sporting a broad moustache reflecting his masculinity, says that women, even if educated, should follow the ideals of Sita and Sabitri. What are these expected ideals? Madhureeta explores them through the montage of the shots with constant reference to Sagar’s Ramayana which actually taught the epic to a generation of people who were born during and after the 1980s.
The camera captures the fate of working women who had suffered the brunt of the ‘agnipariksha’ and had been abandoned by their husbands. In all of the cases, whereas dowry led to violence, one thread remains common: the question of the chastity of women. The three women that Madhureeta interviews know very well why their husbands blamed them for adultery. “He didn’t want to get settled with me. It was just an excuse,” they say.
In a moving scene, the camera cuts from the scene of Sita’s trial by fire, as shown in Sagar’s televised epic, to the burn wards of hospitals, making the uneasy connection between the trial, the practice of Sati and the dowry deaths prevalent across the country. While the meek and subservient character of Sita as per Tulsidas’s version is criticised by most of the feminist scholars the director speaks to, sometimes, the character of Sita becomes the embodiment of resistance, like millions of Indian women who still survive boldly even after their husbands abandon them.
Sita, the queen, rejected royal life and chose to be in the forest even after their exile was over. It is, as the scholars believe, a form of resistance that couldn’t be denied. She raised her sons Luv and Kush in such a way that they could integrate to contemporary times but she never took the privilege of going back to enjoy her position as the queen of Ayodhya. These ideals of resistance found their contemporary ally as one of the women in the documentary, on being asked whether she would ever want to go back to her in-laws’ place boldly said, “No”.
Sita sings the Blues
There are a few more in the list as well. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, an animated movie, also questions the dominant hegemonic narratives of Ramayana and speaks to contemporary feminist ideals.
In the very first scene of the movie as Sita wakes up dancing to the tune of Billie Holiday’s ‘Moanin’ low’, all the stereotypes of her being the traditional Indian women get crumbled. However, the gramophone is stuck at the line, “He is the kind of man needs the kind of a woman like me” pushing the audience to read between the lines.
Besides showing the story of the Ramayana in a very satiric style, it depicts the fate of a San Francisco-based couple where the man goes for a project to India for six months and abandons his wife. It draws a contemporary parallel to Sita’s fate in a different context sprinkling modern feminist ideals on the narratives.
This film rejects Sita’s vulnerability and perceived weakness. Instead, Sita’s perseverance becomes the resistance.
The Adivasi Roots of Sita
The strength of Sita lies in her knowledge of cultivation. The word ‘Sita’ that means ‘ploughing’ finds its roots in different Adivasi languages in the current Jharkhand region. Ranendra Kumar, a renowned scholar of Adivasi literature says that the early society was matriarchal where the women had the knowledge of cultivation. The Aryans were hunter-gatherers and Janak was one of them who probably borrowed Sita from the Adivasi society as an agricultural expert, notes Kumar.
Interestingly, the same concept of matriarchal knowledge was found in the words of another renowned researcher S Bosu Mullick. According to him, men in those days used to live by the mercy of the women who had the knowledge of medicines and cultivation.
Sita’s exceptional quality could also be found in the popular story that her father Janak once found her throwing away the celestial bow by left hand when she was literally a child. All these stories and backdrops, however, get submerged when the patriarchal versions of Ramayana shroud the silver screen; unless one puts the effort to watch documentaries like Laying Janaki To Rest or the film like Sita Sings the Blues. The fight for reclaiming the space of women as go on, struggle must ensue to reclaim Sita- as an embodiment of resistance and subversion.