Delighting in cross-cultural contrasts, “Traces of Sandalwood” follows two separated sisters — one awash in the colorful melodrama of Bollywood, the other locked in the sterility of a biology lab in Barcelona. But this opposition proves to be far from absolute in Maria Ripoli’s hybrid English/Spanish-speaking indie: The melodrama is based on painful reality, while the lab is situated amid fantastically contorted architectural landmarks. With few pretensions to high art, this genuine crowd-pleaser (which snagged an audience award at Montreal), well crafted by an all-female crew, seems a natural for Indian diaspora distribution, with definite crossover potential.
The film begins in high drama as 6-year-old Mina (Vaibhavi Hankare) saves her newborn sister, Sita, from being drowned as an unwanted female, thereupon taking full responsibility for her care. But when their mother dies a few years later, their father hands them over to a woman from the city. Sita is left with nuns, despite her sister’s frantic resistance, and young Mina is consigned to a brothel, from which she narrowly escapes. She finds work as a maid for a rich family, gaining an ally in Sanjay, the handsome son of the house.
This melodramatic opener is suddenly revealed as a film-within-the-film, an autobiographical opus that Mina (Nandita Das), now a Bollywood superstar, is making with her director husband (the self-same Sanjay, now played by Subodh Maskara). The film marks the latest effort in Mina’s unending 30-year search for her missing sister.
Mina finally locates Sita in Barcelona and travels with Sanjay to be reunited with her. But little Sita has grown into a cold, remote scientist named Paula (Aina Clotet), who is totally unaware that she was even adopted, much less that she is of Indian descent. Flatly unreceptive, Paula angrily and summarily rejects Mina and her story. But a tense discussion with her adoptive parents and Mina’s extensive documentation lead her to reluctantly entertain some curiosity about her roots and venture into an Indian videostore. There, she meets Prakash (Naby Dakhli), who introduces her to her sister’s films, and whose openness and quiet persistence, combined with Paula’s sudden cinematic immersion in a vibrant culture, gradually wear down her defensiveness.
In exec producer/scripter Anna Soler-Pont’s adaptation of her novel (which she co-wrote with Asha Miro), “Traces of Sandalwood” constantly plays off the differences between Paula’s buttoned-down repression and Mina’s effortless charisma; the unbound sensuality that Das exuded in Deepa Mehta’s “Earth” and “Fire” are here channeled into an all-inclusive warmth.
But helmer Ripoli and her female cohorts have granted equal impact to the siblings’ very different surroundings. Mina is seen in dance classes that showcase her talents without the usual dizzying Bollywood costume changes and background shifts, stressing the unpretentious grace and artistry involved while still highlighting Mumbai’s rich colors and textures. Meanwhile, Paula’s cool concentration and meticulous experimentation at the biology lab unfold in an atmosphere of scientific dedication. D.p. Raquel Fernandez’s blue-gray Barcelonan palette, at one with the frequent seaside scenes, turns positively magical when reflected in the contorted mirrored windows of renowned architect Antonio Gaudi’s whimsical configurations.