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'Kama Sutra': Addicted to Love

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 7, 1997

Any movie about the Kama Sutra, the fourth-century Hindu lovemaking manual, is going to be charged with anticipation. In "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love," director Mira Nair indulges these expectations, but she also sets boundaries. For Nair, "Kama Sutra" is about the art of lovemaking, not its spectacle.

Although this story is about the pursuit of perfect love, it’s also about the enlightenment of women in a world dominated by men. Nair, who made "Salaam Bombay!" and "Mississippi Masala," has always shown a deft eye for societal ironies and sexual politics. With her co-writer, Helena Kriel, she makes this story (set in India’s 16th century) feel ancient yet applicable to modern times.

In the movie (based in part on Waiida Tabassum’s short story, "Hand-Me-Downs"), Maya (Indira Varma) is a self-centered servant who has been kept in a position of subservience by Tara (Sarita Choudhury, Denzel Washington’s costar in "Mississippi Masala"), a haughty princess. Tara, intimidated by Maya’s beauty, keeps her handmaiden in tatty hand-me-downs and humiliates her in public.

When a local king, Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews, the Indian star of "The English Patient"), proposes marriage to Tara, the resentful maid sets her vengeful course. On the eve of the wedding, Maya slips into Raj Singh’s tent and seduces him. A jealous witness sees the act and reports it. For this Maya is banished from the Royal Court. But Raj Singh cannot shake the memory of Maya; he moans out her name when making love to his new bride.

Now an outcast, Maya wanders around the kingdom until she’s befriended by a stone sculptor called Jai Kumar (Ramon Tikaram). To Jai, Maya is the perfect woman, an ideal source of inspiration for his work. He suggests that the homeless Maya stay with Rasa Devi (Rekha, the one-named star of Indian cinema), a former courtesan to Raj Singh’s father, who teaches the Kama Sutra to women.

Maya joins the circle of students, but the headstrong, instinctive woman is reluctant to take these formalized lessons to heart. Her growing love for Jai is dashed when the sculptor -- who can only deal with Maya as an ideal being -- withdraws from the relationship. Heartbroken, Maya returns to the Kama Sutra and teaches herself to be a courtesan, a choice that inevitably leads her back to the Royal Palace.

One false note and this movie could easily tumble into self parody. When Jai first sets eyes on Maya, for example, he exclaims: "I have found her. There she is -- my lotus woman." There is also the danger of heavy-handedness, particularly when instructor Rasa verbalizes the deep secrets of love with special feminist touches. ("Since when are women helpless?" she says, berating her pupils). But in the stylized context of the movie, these moments become highly credible.

Unfortunately, as Raj Singh becomes addicted to opium, the movie seems to deteriorate with him. By this time, however, "Kama Sutra" has already produced its heady effect, thanks significantly to Varma. She’s a vibrant, beguiling presence, as she performs Odissi dances and seeks the path of perfect love. What counts in this movie, ultimately, is atmosphere. Declan ("Leaving Las Vegas") Quinn’s cinematography is wonderfully picturesque. Set designer Mark Friedberg swathes the production in an evocative, Tantric motif; and Eduardo Castro drapes bodies in elegant costumes of golds and reds. The effect is completed by composer Mychael Danna, who evokes an exciting worldwide mysticism with Sufi melodies, Tibetan chants, African drums and South Indian percussion.

What you learn to appreciate in the movie is the implication of sensuality. In one lovemaking scene, for example, the camera focuses primarily on the moving soles of the lovers’ feet. With scenes such as this, Nair adroitly transfers the sexiness from the screen to the mind.

KAMA SUTRA: A TALE OF LOVE (Unrated) — Contains sexual scenes and nudity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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