'Kama': a whole career, not just positions

April 04, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

To cut to the chase: no, the one where she puts her foot there and he puts his leg over here and she puts her other hand down there, and he somehow -- did they have chiropractors in ancient India? -- gets his lumbar region way over there no, that one isn't in the movie.

Instead, Mira Nair's "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love" is more a study of sexual politics, pre-colonial style, in a colorful, exotic and always fascinating lost world of 16th-century India. It's more fun to look at than it is to think about.

Nair, who has made a sterling reputation with really tough, insightful studies of people of color scratching their ways to personhood in a majority culture ("Mississippi Massala," for one), completely changes tack here.

This is a full-fledged costumer, watching the tortured maneuverings between a prince, his new princess, a servant girl of great beauty and allure and a handsome sculptor. It should surprise nobody that clothes keep being shed for the most ephemeral of reasons, while the overarching sensibility of the "Kama Sutra" seems to control everything -- but not as a lovemaking guide so much as a spiritual way of thinking.

In some way, Nair is interested in revising Westerners' views of the famous lovemaking manual: She represents it as a key to a more sensually involved lifestyle, a guide not merely to sex but also to grace, beauty and full engagement. It's the "Martha Stewart's Entertaining" of the Age of Vishnu.

You'll note that Naveen Andrews makes a good prince, just as he made a good sapper in "The English Patient," and that both Indira Varma (who plays Maya, the servant) and Sarita Choudhury (who plays Tara, the princess) are not merely picturesque but convincing. In fact, the whole thing breathes with conviction; it's not a great movie, but it's a great watch.

'Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love'

Starring Indira Varma and Sarita Choudhury

Directed by Mira Nair

Released by Trimark

Rated R (sexuality, nudity)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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