Let me start off by saying that this is NOT a porno. In fact, its very far from being pornographic unless your definition of porn is a few sex scenes. Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love is a wonderful indie film I first saw when I was an undergrad at U.C. Berkeley. It was playing at the Act 1/Act 2 theater on Center Street in downtown Berkeley. It was a cool art theater that unfortunately closed in 2006. Mira Nair, the director of the film, was known only to indie circles for Salaam Bombay, her only other film before Kama Sutra. Upon my initial viewing of the film, I was struck by the beauty of its story, its look, and its music and 14 years after its release, it continues to resonate with me.

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love tells a story that is reminiscent of old tales that have passed down for hundreds of years. Set in 16th century India, the movie is about 2 girls: Maya (Indira Varma) and Tara (Sarita Choudhury). These girls are raised together even though they come from different social classes. Tara belongs to an upper caste family and is betrothed to Prince Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews) as his princess. Maya, on the other hand, is a servant girl who, on Tara’s wedding night, attracts Prince Raj’s attention and sleeps with him. Upon discovery of what she has done, Maya is thrown out of her village and she wanders the countryside all alone. She eventually meets Jai Kumar, who is Prince Raj’s royal sculptor. They fall in love and Maya learns the ways of the Kama Sutra, which basically teaches a woman how to give sexual pleasure to a man. In the meantime, Prince Raj has been unable to get the beautiful Maya out of his head so he searches for her. He eventually finds her and makes her his courtesan (AKA palace whore). Maya, however, continues her now secret relationship with Jai Kumar, but the two lovers are discovered by the prince and Jai Kumar is sentenced to death.

There are a lot of details I am skipping over in my synopsis, but you have the gist of the movie. Its a beautifully told love story that reads almost like a fairy tale. Although its set in the 16th century, the film contains modern themes of feminism, independence, and female empowerment. The movie failed to fully convince me that it was set in the 16th century, but the strength of its narrative overcame these faults and I managed to immensely enjoy the movie.

None of the performances by the actors are notable standouts, but the combination of their physical attractiveness (a controversial issue I address below) and their character arcs make them interesting and memorable. Its clear that Maya is supposed to be the beautiful of the two girls and this was demonstrated by casting a fair-skinned Indian (she is in fact half Indian and half Swiss) actress to play Maya and a darker-skinned Indian to play the less beautiful and undesirable Tara. Similarly, the prince, who is supposed to be a sexually addicted playboy, is played by a fair-skinned Indian as is the royal sculptor. I remember this being a point of controversy that surrounded the film and it was something that even I noticed when I first watched it. My feelings on this issue are ambivalent in that I understand the director’s choice to use European actors to play the lead roles, but her choice also smacks of racism, even if she did not intend to be racist, which she presumably didn’t. This is a problem that continues to be seen in Indian cinema with actors being cast who are usually fair-skinned and do not look like the majority of Indians.

One of the advantages of making a film set in India, especially one set in India’s past, is the opportunity to use the country’s colorful and rich clothing and beautiful architecture and settings. Kama Sutra is visual eye candy and as stunning as the costumes and set design are, its made all the more striking by the wonderful camera work done by Mira Nair’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Declan Quinn (Aiden Quinn’s brother and the 1998 winner of the Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography for Kama Sutra). You can practically mute the sound and just watch the film and its continuous parade of images.

Just as you can mute the sound and delight in Kama Sutra’s visuals, you can just as easily close your eyes and listen to the film’s enchanting score. I am a huge film score collector and I have amassed quite a big collection over the years. One of my most prized film score CD’s is the one for Kama Sutra. Its a nice mix of New Age/World music and India’s traditional music. Some might find issue with the film’s use of modern beats in the film, but I wasn’t bothered by it in the least bit especially given the film’s modern themes.

Kama Sutra is one of Mira Nair’s best works and her love for her culture and country shows in this film. Nair has gone on to direct bigger Hollywood productions, but none of her non-Indian films has matched the success of her Indian productions such as this film and her subsequent and highly recommended Monsoon Wedding. If you like old-fashioned love stories, you won’t be sorry to check this out. Its a film that has aged remarkably well and continues to hold my respect.