A softcore feminist fantasy in the guise of a study of female empowerment, 16 th century style, “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” forces a historically set story through a narrowly modern prism. Mira Nair’s look at sexual wiles and palace politics in Old India is graced by alluring undraped bods and sumptuous settings and costumes, but this hot-house melodrama is closer to “Dynasty” than to “Devi” and is not destined to be a critics’ fave. A hard sell of sex and exoticism to general, rather than arthouse, audiences is Trimark’s best bet for generating some biz in domestic release early next year.
Princess Tara and servant girl Maya grow up together as close playmates but, as adults, the bitchy Tara (Sarita Choudhury) is determined to keep her stunningly beautiful friend (Indira Varma) in her place. Almost inevitably, the aristocratic Tara becomes engaged to the local king, Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews). But in revenge for a public humiliation by Tara, Maya, on the eve of the royal wedding, sneaks in to seduce the king. Resulting scene is the hottest in the picture, and Maya’s effect on Raj Singh proves so sensational that his mind is very much elsewhere when the time comes to consummate his marriage.
Branded a whore, Maya is driven from the village and wanders the countryside until she is noticed by erotic sculptor Jai (Ramon Tikaram), who senses that she will be the one to inspire his greatest masterpiece. After a brief affair, Jai lets Maya down by insisting that his muse cannot also be his lover, so she decides to become an artist in her own right by studying the Kama Sutra with the court’s former chief courtesan Rasa Devi (the exquisitely composed Rekha) in order to become a great courtesan herself.
Naturally, this leads her back to Raj Singh, who by now has become a dissolute opium addict devoted to orgies rather than to keeping his kingdom together. Once Maya is installed as the new chief courtesan, jealousy in both Tara and Jai inspires melodramatic hell to break loose, and a vulnerable kingdom ruled by a decadent leader begins to come apart at the seams.
The lush surfaces created by the stunning locations at Khajuraho, a central Indian village noted for its erotic temples, and Amber, near Jaipur, along with Mark Friedberg’s eye-catching production design. Eduardo Castro’s colorful costumes and Declan Quinn’s handsome lensing, do give the picture an exotic pull , even if Nair demonstrates little interest in the spectacle angle.
But the Westernized approach and modern feel keep pushing unignorably to the forefront, combining with the contrived plotting to steadily erode any sense of conviction as the film pushes forward. Dominant sensibility mixes a feminist endorsement of Maya’s taking power into her own hands through sex with a hippie-era peace-and-love tone that comes across as half-baked and simple-minded.
A voluptuous but sleek-looking beauty, Varma brings a helpful, impressive sense of self-confidence and strength to Maya, undoubtedly a difficult role to cast. Sarita Choudhury, who costarred in Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” has no trouble bringing out Tara’s bitter fury. Naveen Andrews and Ramon Tikaram are serviceable in the relatively undimensional male leads.