Reviewed by: Amy Laly, Filmmaker and Freelance Writer
firstname.lastname@example.org Published in International Examiner, Seattle
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That Mira Nair is a gifted filmmaker, there can be no doubt. Nair's Kama Sutra has all the trappings of a stunning period film - medieval pageantry, picturesque historical locations, elaborate costumes, fierce wrestling matches, and a colorful chorus of stylized characters with a hunchback as an obligatory metaphor for betrayal.
However, Kama Sutra fails to celebrate the power and strength of female sexuality in both story and substance. Much of the film's agenda is lost in a plot that is essentially listless, casting that is less than informed, characters that are not fully developed, and a time in history that is not politically defined. There is also this uneasy perception that the film succumbs to cinema's double standards on gender sexuality when Nair imposes a tacit ban on male frontal nudity while women's naked bodies are once again exploited as erotic objects.
The ancient Indian text of Vatsayana's Kama Sutra, which literally means "Lessons of Love," is not so much a legend as it is a discourse on the pleasures of love and sex from the purely physical to the spiritually divine. Using Waiida Tabassum's short story "Hand-Me-Downs" as the springboard, Mira Nair and South African playwright Helena Kriel set out to weave these maxims of the Kama Sutra into a predictable screenplay, replete with court intrigue, harem politics, class conflicts, sexual rivalries, betrayals, and revenge.
In the 16th century, India was balkanized into many feudal principalities ruled by hereditary warlords who battled each other for territorial power. Nevertheless, the only political reference that Nair alludes to, is the menacing threat of the "Shah" a code for India's Muslim conquerors who were descendants of Timur and Genghis Khan.
Tara is an Indian princess, arrogant and imperious while her playmate Maya is a servant girl, vivacious and free. Tara's brother, the hunchback Prince Bikram Singh has eyes only for Maya. Maya is the recipient of Tara's hand-me-downs, a metaphor I suppose on the unyielding hierarchy of the caste system in India. A splinter grows into a wedge as Tara is upstaged by Maya in their dance class, which also doubles as a charm school for girls in cultivating the discipline of the Kama Sutra. What better teacher than the now retired Rasa Devi, who was once the late king's favorite courtesan. Rasa is played by Rekha who radiates a magnificent screen presence.
Tara is betrothed to the "grandest" King Raj Singh from the neighboring region, an alliance of convenience between two kingdoms to prevent any grab for power by foreign invaders, i.e. the nameless "Shah." But King Raj Singh lets his eyes rest on Maya for a while and Tara, in a fit of jealous rage, spits on Maya. Maya avenges this humiliation by seducing the willing king, the night before the wedding. The tables are turned. Princess Tara has to live with a man that the servant Maya has "used."
When Maya turns down the marriage proposal from Tara's brother Bikram, hell hath no fury like a hunchback princeling scorned. This is a cruel depiction of a physical characteristic that a person cannot change. Having witnessed the copulation between the king and the commoner, Prince Bikram has Maya run out of town while his sister Tara journeys to her husband's kingdom. While consummating his marriage to Tara, King Raj Singh in the throes of an orgasmic release, involuntary blurts out Maya's name. A rejected Tara starts her harrowing descent into near madness, while King Raj, preoccupied more with astrology than matters of state, resumes his decadent lifestyle of wine, women and opium.
Jai Kumar, the court sculptor and love child of a courtesan had been inspired by Maya's beauty at the wedding celebrations. He befriends and falls in love with the exiled Maya as she wanders about the countryside. Using her as a model Jai Kumar chisels his erotic masterpiece "The Lotus Woman" in stone.
He also reunites Maya with none other than the wise woman of the harem herself, Rasa Devi. How much more vibrant the character of Rasa would have been if she had more of a life other than reciting Kama Sutra proverbs as though they were clichés from fortune cookies. And how much more powerfully the proverbs would have resonated if they had been played out instead of being merely recited. Dialogue is static. Language is not part of the erotic. Nevertheless, the many different sexual positions of the Kama Sutra are effectively portrayed by pairing women in winsome tableaux while images of explicit erotic sculptures from the temples of Khajuraho are superimposed.
After a delicious one night stand with Maya, Jai Kumar gets cold feet and withdraws from the object of his desire in the name of art. A dejected Maya throws herself into learning the Kama Sutra line, verse, chapter and position and triumphantly enters the court of King Raj Singh as his chief concubine.
But the how-to's of the Kama Sutra are no guarantee for lasting relationships as the four principal characters jostle for power in the deadly game of love.
It is difficult to articulate the hierarchy of skin color that fashions the mindset of many casting decisions in films, including this one. There is this subliminal message that a lighter skinned, lithe woman embodies preferred virtues and is therefore more desirable. In Kama Sutra, the lighter skinned Indira Verma plays Maya, the servant girl and the object of three men's desires while the darker, full lipped Sarita Choudhury plays the stereotypical impudent princess who, when she cannot cope, must slide into madness and near suicide. Their characters would have been more authentic and believable if the roles had been reversed since they would have more accurately depicted the social apartheid of the caste system in India.
Naveen Andrews, who as Kip, the bomb disposal expert was allowed clumsy romantic scenes with Juliette Binoche in The English Patient, plays the debauched King Raj Singh. Ramon Tikaram plays the brooding sculptor. The four principal players, Sarita, Indira, Naveen and Ramon, engage in the round robin of some of the most steamiest sex rituals on the silver screen, a welcome respite from Hollywood's predilection to desexualize all characters of color.
Mychael Danna has compiled an impressive soundtrack that includes the music of such talents as the great Ustad Vilayat Khan, L. Subramaniam, Aruna Narayan Kalle, Shubha Mudgal and Iqbal Bano. A seductive fusion of Indian classical music with new age rhythm and percussion accentuates Declan Quinn's lush cinematography. What the movie lacks in content it amply makes up in the audio and visual departments.
Kama Sutra is ultimately the triumph of Mira Nair's filmcraft over weak material.
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