New York Times Movie Review

Kama Sutra (1996)

Seduction, A Skill That Gets Results

Published: February 28, 1997

Mira Nair's voluptuously pretty ''Kama Sutra'' follows Maya (Indira Varma), a 16th-century Indian Cosmo girl, as she learns the ways of love.

Not all these ways are what you might expect, given that the film takes its title from the fourth-century Indian text famed for its enterprising sexual diagrams. For every interesting mention of a position like Twisting of the Creeper, the film carries plenty of other baggage. Much of it follows Maya's troubles in finding Mr. Right.

In a visually lovely film that summons an alluring impression of her native India, Ms. Nair concentrates so deeply on sensual detail that the audience can almost smell the incense wafting from the screen.

Shining silks, brilliant colors, Sufi music, intricately adorned bodies and languid movements all conspire to create a seductive mood.

The film's atmosphere becomes so palpably inviting, in fact, that its story seems only an afterthought.

It's not only when they engage in carefully choreographed soft-core sex that the film's characters seem merely to be going through the motions.

Maya, first seen in girlhood, has a lifelong rival in Tara (Sarita Choudhury, a star of Ms. Nair's ''Mississippi Masala''), who is a princess. Maya is Tara's servant, though it is immediately clear that Kama Sutra training is a great leveler in this culture. The young girl who shows a flair for the Dance of Enticement, as Maya does when both girls are trained by a top-seeded courtesan named Rasa Devi (Rekha, a popular Indian film star), can expect definite advantages in life.

Sure enough, on the eve of Tara's wedding to the handsome king, Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews, who plays Kip in ''The English Patient''), Maya glides into his bedchamber and shows exactly how the Dance of Enticement gets results. While the virginal bride is being taught by her elders that she should allow the groom to put a beetlenut in her mouth, Maya takes a more direct approach.

As a consequence of this candlelit tryst, Raj Singh becomes obsessed with her, and Tara becomes her permanent rival.

''Kama Sutra,'' which is subtitled ''A Tale of Love'' and opens today at Sony Theaters Lincoln Square, then moves on in sari-ripping style to involve Maya with a second virile, long-haired hunk. Jai Kumar (Ramon Tikaram) is a sculptor who becomes fascinated with Maya's form and enlists her as a model.

Maya falls in love with him, though the increasingly dissipated king also continues to pursue her. Poor Tara, who embodies the powerlessness of women without Kama Sutra skills in this culture, must take comfort in her queenly stature while Raj Singh smokes opium and chases courtesans.

What will be better remembered than this story, or than Rasa Devi's occasional instructions in how to bestow scratch marks, are this film's exotic look and its enjoyable languor. It is best not to wonder too closely why Maya's two lovers strip down to loincloths and engage in a wrestling match, or how Maya puts on or removes her chain mail made of pearls.

Ms. Varma, a swanlike actress making her film debut, has the physical grace her role demands and makes a lovely ornament at the center of this story (written by Ms. Nair and Helena Kriel).

She and the film's other players are captivatingly photographed by Declan Quinn, who shot ''Leaving Las Vegas'' and whose work is equally luminous and colorful here.

A Tale of Love

Directed by Mira Nair; written by Helena Kriel and Ms. Nair; director of photography, Declan Quinn; edited by Kristina Boden; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Ms. Nair and Lydia Dean Pilcher; released by Trimark Pictures. At Sony Theaters Lincoln Square, 1998 Broadway, at 68th Street. Running time: 100 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Indira Varma (Maya), Sarita Choudhury (Tara), Ramon Tikaram (Jai Kumar), Naveen Andrews (Raj Singh) and Rekha (Rasa Devi).