Kama Sutra

on February 28, 1997 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
   The great Indian book on the art of lovemaking is center stage in "Kama Sutra," but the movie, though full of nudity and sex, is strangely chaste. In 16th-century India, Princess Tara ("Mississippi Masala's Sarita Choudhury) and servant girl Maya (newcomer Indira Varma) are inseparable companions. But, as they mature, the sexually precocious Maya begins to blossom while the sexually repressed Tara retreats into her shell. When Tara's betrothed, the king Raj Singh ("The English Patient's" Naveen Andrews), takes a long look at the sensuous Maya, the stage is set for a rift between the two women.
   And that's where "Kama Sutra" quickly falls part. Maya and Tara part, but the drama of their combative relationship disappears, too. Although the two eventually get together again, most of the story concerns Maya's involvement with a sexy sculptor and Tara's husband.
   The history of the time is fascinating, and filmmaker Mira Nair's previous films ("Saalam Bombay," "Mississippi Masala" and "The Perez Family") enticingly mixed history with provocative tales of outcasts. But Nair's latest merely bores, playing like a Harlequin Romance, with lots of beautiful bodies--ravishingly shot by ace cinematographer Declan Quinn ("Vanya on 42nd Street")--and exclamatory, breathless emotions. (Stereotypically, it's the lower-class woman who knows how to have more fun.)
   It doesn't help that the film is an English-language production. What would no doubt sound authentic in Hindi is too colloquial and contemporary in English. There's even an unlikely reference to Raj's undressing women with his eyes. Also, the film's treatment of sex, while reasonably explicit, isn't all that passionate. Characters talk a lot about it and do the deed on occasion, but (except for the sexy Varma) don't radiate sex appeal, just good genes. Nair also fails to animate larger-than-life battle scenes, which are simply not her forte. Starring Sarita Choudhury, Indira Varma and Naveen Andrews. Directed by Mira Nair. Written by Helena Kriel and Mira Nair. Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher. A Trimark release. Drama. Running time: 115 min.
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