Historical and exotic settings have always been a godsend to makers of soft-core erotica, especially when they want to appeal to audiences made squeamish by the slightest suggestion of sleaze. The same old inane plots, lavishly displayed flesh and coyly shot sex scenes that would offend the sensibilities of art house audiences if they were set in Sherman Oaks are touted as sensual, passionate and adult when the characters are, say, bohemian writers in 1920s Paris and wear lots and lots of scarves.
The difference, then, between Playboy Channel trash and highbrow Saturday night date film is really just a matter of outfits and locations. Mira Nair's "Kama Sutra" succeeds ever so handsomely in both departments. The story is cheesy, the history dubious, the connection to India's tradition of tantric meditation tenuous and the championing of "female sexuality" spurious -- but, what the hell, it's still pretty sexy.
The story concerns the schoolgirl rivalry between Tara, a princess, and a serving wench named Maya in 16th century India. Tara may be the pretty one, but Maya's sultry ways tend to capture male attention. Maya, angry at having to make do with Tara's hand-me-downs all her life, seduces her friend's bridegroom the night before the wedding. Cast out of the palace afterwards, Maya takes up with a studly, long-haired sculptor and learns Kama Sutra techniques from a retired courtesan. When the sculptor goes all angsty and distant on her because he thinks a relationship will hinder his art, Maya consents to become head courtesan for the king who married Tara. Despite his dissolution and burgeoning opium problem, the king has never forgotten his night with Maya, and soon poor Tara feels like the odd girl out.
"Kama Sutra" looks gorgeous, from the obligatory scarves (in dozens of saturated colors) to the posh, cushion-lined interiors, to the graceful, statuesque women and their dashing menfolk. The hairstyles alone are worth paying seven bucks to see. Yes, it's full of dumb lines like "There she is, my lotus woman!" and "You don't know this, but you inspire all of my work," but at least Indira Varma, as Maya, really does seem possessed of a mysterious, vixenish allure that transcends her otherwise ordinary good looks. And the midriff-baring beaded number she wears in one scene practically deserves a screen credit all its own.
"Kama Sutra" has nothing to do with the complex, codified Indian society of the actual historical period, just as any claims Nair makes to addressing the spiritual aspects of the real Kama Sutra are pure malarkey. This movie is your basic harem fantasy, easy on the explicit sex and dominance/submission dynamics, but lavish on the gauze, ambient sapphism and romance. There's even a bare-chested wrestling scene between the king and Maya's Fabio-esque sculptor beau -- a bonus for the ladies, I guess. It's only the jarring ending that strikes a gloomy, real-world note.
To assume that India's history of erotic art and literature emerged from a society entirely comfortable with sex is a bit like looking at all the naked people in Western painting and deciding that we must be completely at ease with nudity. In fact, contemporary Indian cinema prohibits the depiction of the most modest sexual contact, even kissing, although rape is a commonplace narrative device. "Kama Sutra" itself has been bogged down in the certification process imposed by the Indian government's censors for months and Nair had to go to court to get the film released in her homeland.
None of this affects the goofy, Never-Neverland appeal of the film itself, but it does undermine the liberal American tendency to imagine every other culture -- the more exotic, the better -- as less sexually repressed than our own. That's as flagrant a fantasy as Nair's blithe vision of seductive houris and handsome princes.