Traces of Sandalwood: the desperate search for Sita
by Alfonso Rivera
- Valladolid presents the fifth fiction film by Catalan director María Ripoll, filmed between Bombay and Barcelona by a mostly female crew
After shooting the web documentary Chromosome 5, María Ripoll returns to fiction with Traces of Sandalwood [+see also:
film profile], filmed by a mainly female crew, and with Nandita Das and Aina Clotet taking on the main roles. After receiving the Audience Award at the Montreal World Film Festival, it is currently on in the Official Section of the 59th Seminci – Valladolid International Film Week, out of competition. Once again, the great heroine of the film is childhood, as well as the notions of searching and reunion. The story begins in India, where a little girl named Mina is bringing a jug of water back to her humble home. It is there where a group of women are gathered to help her mother give birth, but when she dies in childbirth, the ladies try to drown the baby, cursing the birth of another girl in the house. But it is Mina who saves little Sita, thus becoming her protector.
When the two girls are sold, the oldest is sent to a brothel, while the youngest is collected (or bought?) by a group of nuns. Luckily, Mina manages to escape from the brothel, where she would have been sexually exploited, and becomes a domestic servant (or rather a slave, as she isn’t paid for her work) for a wealthy family. Although she hasn’t forgotten about her little sister, Sita, and remains determined to do everything she can to find her.
The premise of Traces of Sandalwood (which is the first project from the new production house Pontas Films, and for which global sales are guaranteed by Imagina International Sales) is reworked throughout the film, and acts as a McGuffin to the whole drama. Ripoll brings to light the notion of searching, not only in terms of the search for a loved one, but also in the sense of a search for identity, when the perception that an individual has of themselves is called into question by their fate – as Sita will have to get used to her new identity, which is not easy to accept, especially when the universe in which she lives is the diametric opposite to the one that, all of a sudden, turns out to be her universe of origin.
Ripoll didn’t want to present the situation of women in India as a sensationalist drama, even if, in the first part, we see just how many of them are exploited. Nor does she focus on the poverty of the country, even though she does touch on some of its poverty-related aspects, preferring to bring to life the country’s more joyful and vibrant side, highlighted in the Bollywood films that appear throughout the movie. The director did not want to concentrate too heavily on the thorny issue of illegal adoptions either, nor that of the buying of babies by certain religious orders, or what it means to be good parents, which could have provided greater depth to this well-intentioned yet somewhat overly light-hearted film.
In her adaptation of the book of the same name by Asha Miró and Anna Soler-Pont (also the scriptwriter and producer of the film), Ripoll has above all focused on the theme of searching as a metaphor for what happens when we ask ourselves questions about our safe and comfortable lives, and about the difficulty of breaking away from our lives to adopt a new identity and a different culture to the one we have always known.
(Translated from Spanish)