The Indian-born director Mira Nair has never hesitated to cross borders--cultural, geographical or temporal. Some of her previous films have examined aging dancers in a Bombay strip club, an expatriate newspaper vendor in New York who's been separated from his pregnant wife in India, the Romeo-and-Juliet romance of a black man and an Indian woman in present-day Mississippi, and three decades of sea change within a Cuban family displaced to Miami.
Nair's admirers will not be surprised, then, to learn that Kama Sutra (A Tale of Love) has transported her to sixteenth-century India. There the frankly erotic intrigues of an insolent princess, her beautiful, self-possessed servant and a whimsical king shed new light not only on the libertine rituals and mores of an earlier era, but--by stark contrast--on the repressed climate that rules India today, in its post-colonial period. "In my mind," the director says, "to be utterly modern is to embrace the truly ancient."
Nair is regarded in this hemisphere as the most important Indian filmmaker since the great Satyajit Ray--and not just because her fervent feminism has struck a chord with Western women. She is also a sublime dramatist, a blindsiding wit and a highly personal cinematic stylist. For just the hint of this last, soak up the rich reds and saturated golds she uses to portray the decadent court in Kama Sutra and the languid rhythms in which the actors move.
We may as well get something straight. Nair is a sensualist, but she's no pornographer, and Kama Sutra is anything but a mere catalogue of acrobatic sexual entanglements. The obsessive, self-immolating, unreasoned visions of carnality she portrays here can be very steamy--and very lovely--stuff. But in showing us the collisions of the imperious Tara (Sarita Choudhury, the young lover in Mississippi Masala), her abused servant Maya (Indira Varma) and the feckless Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews--the heroic sapper, Kip, in The English Patient), her deeper mission is to explore the kind of human spirituality that has long since vanished from Indian society. The unabashedly athletic section of the Kama Sutra best known to Western readers, by the way, makes up just one of the volume's 35 chapters. Want to see the whole thing? It's on the Internet.
I digress. The point here is that the embattled Maya's use of her sexuality to rise from deprivation--lessons learned from India's third-century book of love--is not cynical. Rather, it's liberation in its purest form, the highest expression of her culture, the perfection of an art. Maya has gifts her rival Princess Tara cannot conceive, but when the court sculptor, Jai Kumar (Ramon Tikaram), beholds them, he understands immediately that he has found perfection in Woman. Another drama resides in that.
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Thus do the concerns of Mira Nair's earlier films, from Salaam Bombay! to The Perez Family--womanhood, freedom, how human feeling transcends the barriers of culture and class--take root in this liquid dream of Indian passion four centuries past. Nair's co-writer on Kama Sutra is--no surprise--a South African playwright named Helena Kriel, and if there's any sort of cultural clash in their collaboration, it's not evident.
In fact, this lush and beautiful examination of sensual endeavor, political power and carnal idealism is one of the most perfectly crafted films of recent years. Those whose thoughts reside mostly in their heads but have a way, now and then, of slipping southward are likely to enjoy it immensely.
Kama Sutra (A Tale of Love).
Screenplay by Helena Kriel and Mira Nair. Directed by Mira Nair. With Indira Varma, Sarita Choudhury, Ramon Tikaram and Naveen Andrews.