Reviewed by GREG KING
Stars:Naveen Andrews, Sarita Choudhury, Indira Varma, Ramon Tikaram, Rekha
Lavish production values, beautiful costumes, opulent settings, some superb scenery and gorgeous cinematography cannot disguise the fact that Mira Nair’s new film is little more than a big budget sex and sin melodrama set in 16th century India. The rain coat brigade may be disappointed to learn that Kama Sutra is not a graphic re-enactment of the famous 4th century book that instructs women in the erotic arts and teaches them how to satisfy their lovers, but rather a fictitious drama that draws upon the ancient text in order to further explore the traditional sexual roles that pervade this fundamentally patriarchal society.
Romance, passion, eroticism, jealousy, sexual betrayal and brutal vengeance are the main ingredients at the heart of this perversely fascinating drama. Although the film itself is liberally adorned with subtly placed erotic imagery that continually reminds audiences of the explicit sexual origins of the material, Kama Sutra offers a more subtle and implicit criticism of the caste system that still dominates India to some extent even today.
The narrative of Kama Sutra has been co-written by Nair and Helena Kriel, and centres around two girls, childhood friends even though they hail from different social classes, which shapes their relationship and essentially makes them rivals in both love and life. Maya (played by theatre trained actress Indira Varma, making her film debut) is a beautiful but poor servant girl who suffers humiliations daily, while Tara (played by Sarita Choudhury, who previously worked with Nair on Mississippi Masala) is a princess who has been raised on the finer things in life. The nature of their relationship changes when Tara marries the handsome king Raj Singh (played by Naveen Andrews, from The English Patient and the new Australian drama True Love And Chaos). On the eve of the wedding Maya deliberately seduces Raj, who is captivated by her beauty and cannot get her out of his mind. But when the angry Tara discovers her friend’s treachery she has Maya banished from the kingdom in disgrace.
Maya meets Jai (Ramon Tikaram), a handsome sculptor who is also entranced by her natural beauty and decides to use her as the inspiration for his next work of art, an erotic sculpture entitled the Lotus Woman. When Raj Singh comes across the statue he immediately recognises Maya as the model and determines to find her again. Eventually Maya becomes the king’s chief courtesan, which gives her enormous power over the king, and again rekindles the vindictive and possessive Tara’s anger and bitter jealousy. She plots a nasty revenge that will leave everyone scarred and will inevitably change the direction of all their lives.
The performances of the cast are enthusiastic enough, with new comer Varma particularly impressive in a fairly draining and emotionally demanding role. Andrews has a smouldering screen presence and brings raw sensual appeal to his role as the king who is eventually torn between the two women, while Tikaram resembles an Indian version of Fabio.
Returning to film on actual locations in India for the first time in over four years, Nair has paid great attention to detail here, and the film positively reeks of authenticity. Mychael Danna’s evocative and haunting soundtrack draws upon local songs and regional music for inspiration, while Declan Quinn’s lush cinematography captures the rough natural beauty of India to great effect. However, Kama Sutra is ultimately let down by some banal and almost unintentionally hilarious dialogue that smacks heavily of the romantic pulp fiction from the likes of Danielle Steel or Jackie Collins or the tacky Mills and Boon-like bodice tearers.