‘Kama Sutra’ a Tale of Tragic Love
With “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” director Mira Nair has incorporated the teachings of the famous 4th century text on the art of love into a heady, tragic tale of the entangled lives of two women and two men in 16th century India.
Nair, maker of the landmark “Salaam Bombay!” and the engaging “Mississippi Masala,” has this time over-reached with a story as silly as it is sensual.
Originally, “Kama Sutra,” which faces formidable censorship problems on its home ground in India, was more explicit. It was toned down by Trimark Pictures and Nair to emphasize the sensual rather than purely erotic and is being released without an MPAA rating.
Nair and co-writer Helena Kriel have taken themselves far too seriously and have laid a feminist sensibility much too heavily on material that has inherently camp elements--exotic locales, a dastardly villain, improbably gorgeous stars who cannot but bring to mind fond memories of Maria Montez and Turhan Bey and their ‘40s escapist movies. (Trying to evade campiness is to invite it unintentionally, alas.)
A more effective approach might have been satire, sending up the harem genre as a way of making a feminist comment of the status of women in particular and political tyranny in general. Nair, in short, might better have played her film’s various elements and concerns against one another, as directors as different as Jonathan Demme and R.W. Fassbinder have done so successfully, instead of trying to blend them into an awkward, contradictory whole. Not helping matters is that none of Nair’s people is intrinsically interesting enough to sustain the traditionally slow pacing and length of Indian films. (Note: “Kama Sutra” is an English-language production.)
In any event, when the beautiful princess Tara (Sarita Choudhury) slights her even more beautiful servant Maya (Indira Varma), Maya in revenge offers herself to Tara’s bridegroom, the king Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews). He’s a young and handsome despot who rapes his bride on their wedding night and is already dissolute from the temptations of the harem and the opium pipe.
Maya ends up cast out of the palace, to begin an odyssey that finds her falling in love with the well-muscled royal sculptor Jai Kumar (Ramon Tikaram) and learning the secrets of the Kama Sutra from his friend, a priestess of love (the striking Rekha, a woman of commanding presence). But they are to be lovers as star-crossed as the miserable Tara and the rapidly decaying Raj, who is endangering the security of his kingdom with his epic debauchery.
With its spectacular authentic locales, lavish costumes, lush score and beautiful stars, “Kama Sutra” is visually sumptuous beyond description. Certainly, its notions of love-making are liberating and wise, as are its celebration of sensuality in all aspects of life. But as a movie “Kama Sutra” is, to paraphrase the Doors, not likely to light your fire.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: Although not hard-core, the film includes much depiction of love-making, much discussion of love-making techniques, much nudity, a scene of rape and scenes of violence.
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‘Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love’
Indira Varma: Maya
Sarita Choudhury: Tara
Ramon Tikaram: Jai Kumar
Naveen Andrews: Raj Singh
Rekha: Rasa Devi
A Trimark Pictures release of an NDF International Ltd./Pony Canyon Inc. and Pandora Films presentation in association with Channel Four Films of a Mirabai production. Director Mira Nair. Producers Nair, Lydia Dean Pilcher. Executive producer Michiyo Yoshizaki. Screenplay by Helena Kriel, Nair, based in part on the story “Hand-Me-Downs” by Wanda Tabassum. Cinematographer Declan Quinn. Editor Kristina Boden. Costumes Eduardo Castro. Music Michael Danna. Production designer Mark Friedberg. Set decorator Stephanie Carroll. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
* Selected theaters.