All about eros

"Kama Sutra" director Mira Nair talks about sex in 16th century India, and what it means to us today.


Jennie Yabroff
March 7, 1997 10:33PM (UTC)

ten years ago, director Mira Nair stunned audiences with her feature
debut, "Salaam Bombay" -- a gritty, intoxicating look at street children
living hand-to-mouth in modern India that won the Camera d'Or at
Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award. For Nair, the attention
was gratifying, but hardly expected.

Born in India, Nair came to the United States to pursue an advanced degree in sociology at
Harvard, and only picked up a movie camera as a way of documenting her
subjects. For her graduate thesis, Nair made a documentary about a Muslim
community in the U.S., and continued exploring cross-cultural themes in
subsequent films. Soon, she crossed the line into fiction, first with "Salaam
Bombay," and next with "Mississippi Masala," an interracial romance set in
the American South.

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In her evolution as a filmmaker, Nair became something of a
global citizen, traveling the world for her movies and
researching different cultures. It was on one of these voyages, for a
project that was ultimately scrapped, that Nair began to think about a
return to India.

Those thoughts developed into "Kama Sutra," a sexually explicit, visually stunning
tale of two women in 16th century India -- one a princess, one a servant
-- who apply the teachings of the ancient text to their love lives, with
results that may raise some modern-day eyebrows. The film features
opulent sets, live elephants, complicated banquet scenes, an
invading army and plenty of sex. That Nair embarked on this
project at all is amazing. That she did it in India, as an independent
filmmaker, and managed to stay true to both her budget and her vision
is nothing short of miraculous. Nair met with Salon at San Francisco's
Rex Hotel to talk about the inspiration behind her film and her
struggles in getting it made.

What were you trying to reconstruct by working from an ancient
text?

My main objective was to counter the obscenity and perversity with
which I see women being treated on the Indian screen and the
international screen. Not just women, but also sexuality. In the U.S., sex
is always presented as a spectator sport, devoid of any emotion, and in
India sexuality is taboo, so it's cloaked in rape and violence. It's a
very twisted view -- there's a dichotomy between the virgin and the
whore, and woe betide any woman who is to express herself in a sexual
way. I went back to a time which took love very seriously, which studied
love, studied the art of sexuality, but while being non-moralistic about
it. Sex without love could be practiced, through the art of pretense,
and sex with love could be a link to the divine. Eros was a spiritual
thing. So it was with that idea that we went back and studied not only
the Kama Sutra, but also other religious texts that are part of our
iconography, which are unabashedly about Eros. We ended up writing a
film that was not really about sexual positions, but was more about
sexual politics between men and women. I didn't want to make an
historical museum piece on India, but something that you and I could
relate to in San Francisco, India, wherever.

Did researching ancient India give you a new perspective on modern
India?

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It showed me how far we have come from this inextricable combination
of sensuality with sacredness that we had in the past. India is so
paradoxical, because to the eye, you don't see any expression of
sexuality or sensuality in our media or anywhere. But on my way to the
location every day, in a small village in central India, at the base of
every banyan tree I would see a statue of lingam and yoni, the male penis and the female vagina, with a fresh flower. The male-female union is still worshipped as sacred. And that is a part
of an ancient tradition, but the inspiration to make the film came from
what I didn't see. It's a very complicated reality, but I feel very
charged by it, very engaged in it.

This film is the first time you return to India since "Salaam
Bombay." What are the similarities between the two films?

My big joke with the crew was to make "Kama Sutra" an opulent "Salaam
Bombay," in the sense that it had to be alive, it had to be real. Even
though we worked so hard on the design, if anything looked too
beautiful, my whole agenda was to fuck it up. We wanted to make an
anti-exotic film, set in an exotic land, in the arena of real elegance
and court life. It is close to "Salaam" in the sense of its visual
density. But it was a great aesthetic indulgence, to get out of the
gutter for a change, and work with things I love, like the fabrics and
the costumes. The costumes really speak of the refinement in our
tradition -- I'm so tired of Versace and all these designers going to
India and making a pastiche of our fabrics, when everything has a
specific code, textiles mean something, kings wear certain fabrics and
servants wear certain fabrics. To be able to use all that was a real
indulgence.

What is the status of the film in India? Will it be released?

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It's taking a long time. We spent four months fighting this battle
with the censor board of India, who basically wanted me to remove all
the sexuality from the film, and I said to them that this would no
longer be the film that I made. India still being the working democracy
that it is, I took the case against the censor board to the Supreme
Court of India, the appellate tribunal. It's all I've been doing. They
had a much more enlightened hearing from the court, and they finally
passed the movie with slightly over two minutes cut, which are cuts that
I expected and accept. It's opening all over India on the 21st of March.

You must have anticipated having problems getting this
released.

I knew it would be radical, but I always view the eye of the storm.
I'm always dealing with the problem at hand -- the script, the casting,
whatever it is. I don't sit around second-guessing what the censor board
will say, because it would paralyze me completely.

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Would you have been satisfied if the film could not have been
released in India?

No, not at all, that's why I fought tooth and nail to get it
released. A direct inspiration of it was to really counter the
perversity in Indian cinema. Sexuality has rarely been presented from a
female point of view, anywhere in the world, let alone India. Helena
Kriel, my co-writer, and I, our intention was to create full-bodied
female characters, women with all their pricklinesses, not just
goodie-two-shoes. And at the same time have them unafraid to express
their sexuality in a holistic way, as just a part of their lives. And do
it in an unsentimental, fairly ruthless fashion.

What sort of reaction has this project received in India?

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There's so much press about it -- there are reporters in my living
room when I wake up. There's a hell of a lot of awareness about the
whole battle and controversy. There's too much hype about it, and I'm
pretty nervous, but also curious about what will happen. One contractual
condition I've asked for, as far as the sale of the film in Indian
territory, is that three matinees a week must be for women only.
Because, you know, the Kama Sutra is a very misunderstood text.
Everybody thinks it's just this fuckfest. But it's not. It's a
completely philosophical, matter-of-fact treatise on men and women. I
think the film is very true to the real meaning of the Kama Sutra, but
that is not how people ordinarily understand the Kama Sutra, even in
India. It was like waving a flag to make it for women only, to give the
message that it's not pornography.

What about the reaction in the U.S.?

The MPAA took a similar stance to India's, and gave it an NC-17. But
the studio has chosen to release it unrated, and for the video version
we'll make almost exactly the same cuts as for the Indian version, and
release it with an R rating. I find there is a double standard in
Hollywood, in that any minute you can have a woman with her breasts
exposed and a knife in her back, but woe betide you if you kiss that
nipple.

A friend who saw "Kama Sutra" with me said he thought it would be
a good "date movie." How do you feel about that characterization?

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I think it is a good date movie. Four separate couples have told me
they had fantastic sex after seeing my movie. So yes, I think it is an
excellent date movie!


Jennie Yabroff

Jennie Yabroff is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Jennie Yabroff

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