Kama Sutra brings the legends to life as it follows the fortunes of Maya (Indira Varma) and Tara (Sarita Choudury) through a pivotal period of 16th century Indian history.
Tara is a princess, Maya her servant. Raised together as childhood friends and rivals, each in different ways uses the teachings of the Kama Sutra, the 4th century Indian treatise on love and sexuality, as a source of inspiration and enlightenment in a high-stakes romantic chess game.
When Maya finally achieves the equality with Tara she has always desired, the price that must be paid is mythic in its finality.
eyelights: The setting and overall production. The naturally beautiful main cast. Mychael Danna’s sumptuous score.
eyesores: The storytelling.
Almost everyone’s heard of the Kama Sutra, right? Well, being curious, I tried reading it once. You might have too. I know I’m not alone, given the number of editions/reprints of this book that have been published through the years.
Honestly, I couldn’t get through it.
It’s not so much that it was a hard read, it’s just that most of what I was plodding through was pretty violent, involving deep scratching, beating on the partner’s chest, …etc. It neither fit my idea of lovemaking nor my idealized impression of the Kama Sutra.
So I never completed it; I just couldn’t deal with it.
But I was nonetheless curious when a movie based on its principles came out. I didn’t get to see it at the cinema, of course, but I got my hands on it the moment that I could get it from the video store. I liked it. It was imperfect, but I liked it.
And, when it came out on DVD, I just had to buy it.
It must be said that the key strength of this motion picture isn’t its erotic nature, per se. What makes ‘Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love’ worth seeing is its lusciousness: the setting, the breathtaking locations, the set dressing, the costumes and the amazing score by Mychael Danna, all combine to make for a delicious aural experience. I don’t think I know of another film quite like this one.
Now that is not to say that there isn’t any savoury erotica peppering the picture – it is called ‘Kama Sutra’, after all. But, in a modern world saturated with sex, a film such as this one doesn’t rest on its “proclivities” alone – which immediately explains its subtitle, ‘A Tale of Love’: it’s a story of romantic interminglings that happens to have the Kama Sutra at its core.
Frankly, the story is okay, but it’s nothing new. In fact, it serves up many moments that seem a bit trite to me. I suppose that there’s only so much that one can do with two men and two women without going to ridiculous contrivances. One also has to consider the context of 16th century conventions as well as the fact that the film was made in India in the mid-’90s; there’s only so much one could get away with.
And yet, even basic things like the two female characters’ names, Maya and Tara, seem facile and audience-friendly. Perhaps this “Tale of Love” is rooted in historical elements, in which case then all is forgiven. But, otherwise, it feels slightly lazy to me. Anyway, I would be curious to know if the self-serving, womanizing, Raj Singh was actually king (I looked it up, but could not find a reference to him).
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
‘Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love’ is a tragedy on all counts: each of the four focal characters end up worse off than they how started. Maya, who always had it hard, ends up being used and loses the love of her life, Tara who always had it easy, ends up broken-hearted in a loveless marriage, Jai loses his love and his life, while Raj loses his mind and his kingdom. Comme c’est triste.
In all cases, however, it was simply a question of karma: Maya betrayed her friend to exact revenge on her after years of mistreatment, Tara had been a spoiled brat and looked down upon a friend who was more naturally gifted than she, Raj pushed away the woman of his dreams to focus on his work and left her to fend for herself, and Raj was a despicably selfish jerk with serious entitlement issues.
So one could easily argue that they got exactly what they deserved.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
I just wish that the performers had been of higher calibre. If Mira Nair had selected more potent actors, I think that it would have steamed up the screen quite a bit more; they could have made us feel the various passions more strongly. While the current crop were capable enough, they were likely picked more for their physical attributes than their thespian qualities. Even if the eye-candy is appreciated, it’s a lost opportunity.
For me, what spiced things up were the many instructions in the art of love that were sprinkled throughout the film. Since one of the characters becomes a Prince’s bride, she is given minor lessons in the Kama Sutra. Maya, meanwhile, ends up being a concubine – after learning the Kama Sutra from a courtesan. What we hear is not especially substantial, but it does give a small taste of what it’s about – enough to pique one’s curiosity.
In fact, even though I’m only a mild fan of ‘Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love’ (after all, aural stimulation is of limited appeal), I just might have to give that inspirational tome another chance. A part of me hopes that I picked up the wrong edition from the library way back then and that my next experience will be much more instructive, inspirational and affecting.
We’ll see. More on that later, no doubt.
Date of viewing: September 13, 2012