The power of culture and identity

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A review of ‘Traces of Sandalwood’ at the Spanish Film Festival

Bollywood meets Barcelona in this hybrid film about the complexities of human identity and cultural philosophy. Though it stumbles awkwardly through some of the initial revelatory scenes, Traces of Sandalwood is nonetheless an engaging film that Indian diaspora audiences especially will be able to relate to and enjoy.

The film opens with heart-wrenching scenes as young Mina saves her newborn sister, Sita, from being drowned after their mother dies in childbirth. She assumes the role of protector and dotes on her baby sister. But as their extended family falls further into poverty, they are handed over to human traffickers. Despite her sister’s desperate protestations, Sita is left at an orphanage with nuns, while young Mina narrowly escapes being forced into life in a Mumbai brothel. Mina finds work as a maid for a wealthy city family and is discovered by the son of the house, Sanjay, who gives her gentle attention and encouragement.

Fast forward thirty years and we learn Mina Kumar (Nadita Das) is now a Bollywood superstar alongside her producer husband Sanjay (Subodh Maskara). In spite of the fairy-tale turn her life has taken, Mina has never stopped searching for her baby sister.

Through a twist of fate, Mina discovers Sita is living in Barcelona and travels with Sanjay to Spain for her long-awaited reunion. But Sita, who was adopted by a Spanish couple and raised as Paula (Aina Clotet), has no knowledge of her adoption or her Indian heritage. The intense discomfort when the pair meet is palpable. This is a quest Mina has undertaken for decades but comes as a complete shock for Paula.

After confronting her parents and spiralling through a crisis of self, Paula’s curiosity gets the better of her and she ventures into an unknown part of town to an Indian video store. Here she meets Prakash (Naby Dakhli) who introduces her to the great Mina Kumar’s films. As a biologist Paula is trained to be clinical and detached, but slowly her cinematic immersion in Indian culture and budding romance force her to re-examine herself and her attitude.

The film dependably pitches the melodrama of Bollywood without the overwrought histrionics. Writer Anna Soler-Pont has adapted the novel she co-wrote with Asha Miro for the big screen with solid results. Though the first of half of the film drags in some places after the initial narrative exposition, the intense repression and cool demeanour of Paula is played beautifully against the charismatic confidence and warmth of Mina.

The film certainly raises questions about modern inter-country adoption practices. Are we doing the best thing for Indian children born into impoverished families by allowing them to be sent overseas to be raised, even if it is by loving parents? We watch as an anguished Paula struggles with a conflict of identity. Is she Spanish or Indian?

The Indian boyfriend who helps her to overcome her taciturn nature and venture forward for a relationship with her sister is a nice touch, but somewhat undermines the undertones of the film about female empowerment. Also, Mina’s husband seems somewhat cruel in some of the later scenes which is at odds with his earlier characterisation as a kind-hearted Good Samaritan and the ‘white knight’ who saves her from a life of destitution.

The gorgeous cinematic vistas of Barcelona and Mumbai are each treated to stress the character of the city as reminiscent in the character of the two sisters. The rich tapestry of colour and history in Mumbai, Mina’s home, is set against the blue-grey palette of Spain and distinct Gaudi architecture where Paula exudes a cool, meticulous ethic even toward her new sibling but discovers her unique history and personality.

This is not a typical Bollywood film, so don’t go in expecting a riot of colour and the usual song and dance routines. Traces of Sandalwood is a very thoughtful film with some with some hypnotising musical scores reminiscent of the Bollywood classics.