Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra is a work of art presented on the reel

The mesmerizing courtesan. The unhappy wife. The amoral husband. The reverent lover.

Mira Nair weaves a story of ill-fated relationships in her brilliantly misnamed film ‘Kama Sutra- A Tale of Love.’ India has often been called the land of the Kama Sutra, a treatise on love, sex and relationships, written in Ancient India by Vatsyayana. While the west largely believes that the Kama Sutra is about sex positions, in reality, almost 80% of the book is about other themes related to love and desire. Family, spiritual bliss, pleasure, marriage and morality are some of the things that the book talks about. And these are the various themes Nair discusses in her film.

A painting from a Kama Sutra picture book

Narrated in English, initially, the Hindi-speaking viewer might find the film a little jarring; particularly when old ladies dressed in traditional Shekhawati clothing talk about typically Indian subjects using words that would be more suited to a British lady. However, the shock quickly wears off and the characters draw you into their lives completely, turning you into an observer rather than a viewer.

The story is based on Wajida Tabassum’s controversial short story, ‘Utran'(Cast-offs or Hand-me-downs). As a film, the story is tastefully intertwined with the philosophy of the Kama Sutra to tell an engaging tale of human psychology.

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

Tara (played by Sarita Choudhury), a Rajput princess, and Maya, a servant girl (played by Indira Varma) are raised together in the palace. The two are friends and playmates and confidants. Both girls study dance under an instructress and are forever competing with each other. However, while they are practically inseparable as children, there are stark differences between them which they don’t dare forget. Maya wears Tara’s hand-me-downs and is expected to be grateful for them. She is a far better dancer than the princess but that just means that she’ll someday be a prized courtesan like her mother had been. And while Tara is being formally schooled in the arts of love by Rasa Devi, a fabled teacher of the Kama Sutra(played by Rekha), Maya is not allowed in those lessons. The girls grow up and the princess’ jealousy is palpable to Maya who still loves her friend. The tension between the girls, bubbles over when Tara’s fiance, King Raj Singh(played by Naveen Andrews) sees her for the first time but is drawn to Maya in front of the entire royal household. Unable to take the insult, Tara spits in Maya’s face and asks her to leave, even though Maya had tried to salvage the situation by saying to Tara, “He likes you.”

A still from the film, Maya (L) and Tara (R) dance together

Needless to say, the king is enamored by Maya and seeks her out. One thing leads to another and partly out of anger, Maya gives herself to her childhood friend’s would be husband. The wedding rites are completed the next day and in farewell, Maya whispers in Tara’s ear that for all her life she has lived with her used goods and now Tara will have to do the same.

In a fit of masculine jealousy, Maya is driven out of the palace by Tara’s brother Bikram (played by Khalid Tyabji), for sleeping with Raj Singh. Alone and friendless, Maya wanders aimlessly till one of Raj Sing’s sculptors, Jai Kumar(played by Ramon Tikaram) finds himself enraptured by Maya’s innocent and radiant beauty. When he realizes that Maya has no home, he does the honorable thing and takes Maya to Rasa Devi, who gives the girl a home and a spiritual sanctuary.

In time, Maya falls in love with the sculptor and the two consummate their love. But Jai Kumar is so consumed by the intensity of these new feelings that he is unable to work with his usual self-reliant solitude. He rejects Maya’s plea for permanence and commitment. Upset and hurt, she becomes Raj Singh’s favorite courtesan. Singh, who finds his wife Tara utterly lacking in the arts of love, showers Maya with attention and gifts. Tara, seething with anger and pain at her husband’s betrayal finds some comfort in the fact that she is still the queen and Maya is nothing but a concubine.

A still from the film, the king’s favorite courtesan

Raj Singh proves himself to be an indulgent, wasteful and irresponsible king, delegating matters of the state to his prime minister, while engaging himself only in the pursuit of pleasure. He commissions Jai Kumar to sculpt Maya’s form in various postures. This brings a now repentant Jai Kumar face-to-face with Maya. The love between them doesn’t stay dormant for too long and Kumar tells Maya that he wants to marry her and that he cannot bear it that she is still the king’s courtesan.

A still from the film, Jai Kumar captures Maya’s essence in stone

Like it happens in all great love stories, they are found and Jai Kumar is torn away from Maya’s embrace and taken away in chains. At the same time, Tara, miserable and depressed, slits her wrist. Maya finds her and bandages her wound, counseling her and confessing that being the king’s courtesan had brought her nothing but heartache. She teaches Tara the ways of the flesh and trails a length of kisses down the princess’ navel, marking her before she would be marked by her husband. In return, Tara enables Maya to escape so that she can meet Jai Kumar before his execution.

Bruised, bloodied, in chains and covered in dust; that’s how Maya finds Kumar in the same stone quarry where she had first met him. She asks him to be brave in the face of his execution and cuts off her hair in front of him, giving up her feminine vanity as her beloved would give up his life tomorrow. She promises him that she would always be with him. This is perhaps the most poignant part of the film, where the subtle undercurrents of grief are extremely strong but not dramatized at all.

The next day, Jai Kumar is executed by being trampled under an elephant, while an army of enemy soldiers march into the kingdom, thanks to Raj Singh’s ineffectual leadership.

Dazed, Maya leaves to seek another destiny as she rubs off the red kumkum off her forehead, in an act of signifying her widowhood.

Kama Sutra is a story of sensuality served with deeply complex themes of what it means to be a woman. Feminism is only one of the ideologues one can apply to underscore the film in its entirety. More importantly, the film also deals with the controversial issues of extramarital sex with sensitivity, asking important questions about fidelity and faithfulness. While sex is present throughout the film in actual acts of intercourse and events leading up to them, the story is actually not about sex at all. It is a story of what human beings do to each other and why. Watch Kama Sutra for its strong performances, particularly from Indira Varma, who owns Maya’s character completely. Also, notice the poeticness of every single visual and dialogue. This is not a frivolous film about sex. It is an act of love through and through.

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