Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January, we look back at the multi-faceted career of Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, whose textured works expertly thread social, cultural, and narrative borders. Read the rest of our coverage here.
When it comes to matters of sex and desire, there are two Indias: One is the ‘land of the Kama Sutra’—the book on the art of love and lovemaking—where temples are intricately adorned with sculptures performing acrobatic-yoga sex. The other is the land that looks away from this heritage and has not only proudly adopted Victorian attitudes to everything carnal but is also violent in its defense of this misguided notion about “true Indian culture”. It is no wonder then that it breeds a sexually repressed (over)population.
Mira Nair’s film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love is situated in the first kind of India. Its release in 1996 was censored and, eventually, banned by the second. The same year also witnessed a controversy at the Miss World pageant, hosted for the first time by India, as several political and feminist groups protested against the “Western degeneracy” of the swimsuit round and drove it to Seychelles. In her essay “‘A Love Song to Our Mongrel Selves’: Hybridity, Sexuality, and the Law”, Ratna Kapur posits that the nineteenth-century colonial encounter and the ensuing nationalist movement in India cast a long shadow on how notions of sexuality and culture have become inextricably linked; the domestic sphere, i.e. the sphere of the Indian woman, had to remain uncontaminated by Western morals (or lack thereof).
In Nair’s film, Princess Tara (Sarita Choudhury) and her servant girl Maya (Indira Varma) are apparently friends, but in a classic case of the grass being greener on the other side, jealousy and resentment gnaw at their hearts. Maya is fed up with wearing Tara’s hand-me-downs and of being deprived of the luxuries and knowledge that comprise Tara’s cultural capital. Tara, on the other hand, envies Maya’s easy charm and dancing skills. Both, however, have one thing in common—to be as desirable as Rasa Devi (Rekha), the most sought-after former courtesan at the local king’s court, who teaches the secrets of the titular scripture to women.
It’s interesting to note that Rasa’s students range from teenaged virgins to elderly, silver-haired women: one is never too young or old to feel passion. In her velvety voice, Rasa philosophises about love and desire in a way that can make ‘Yeah, sex is great, but…’ memes cease to exist. These—along with the lush colour palette that’s evocative of the eroticism of Raja Ravi Varma’s artwork, especially his Indian Girl after Bath and his rendition of Kalidasa’s play Abhijnanashakuntalam—are perhaps the only redeeming qualities of Nair’s endeavour.
Kama Sutra is hamstrung by its pretensions to proto-feminism and a curious lack of homoerotic desire. Nair seems to believe that the epitome of female liberation is sexual liberation. True to her claim, Maya makes her own destiny by becoming a courtesan at King Raj’s (Naveen Andrews) court after her tight-lipped, humourless paramour, the sculptor Jai Kumar (Ramon Tikaram), spurns her for his work. To give one of the many examples of the gratingly trite and inane screenplay, she tells Rasa Devi, “If I can’t have the one I love, then I will have those I don’t love.” In what world does not doing what you love set you free?
On the other side of this coin is Tara, whose love for Raj entraps her in a toxic relationship. Consumed with the memory of his first night with Maya, he creates a world for Tara for which she could never have prepared herself.
Tara, pampered and sheltered from the harsh realities of the world, is presented with a rosy image of consummation; her female elders tell her that her husband cannot touch her for the first three days after the wedding, but would later make tender love to her. However, on the first night, she’s caught off-guard by the fact that the first time is painful, and in her case, the pain is not just physical, but also emotional, as Raj rapes her and leaves her to be with his courtesans.
Tara, nonetheless, wants her abusive husband to love her and accept her as his wife. To this aim, she learns a trick or two in seduction from Maya, for according to the film, a woman must give herself up bodily to a man in order to gain the upper hand over him.
Maya and Tara reconcile, but only when Tara learns that Maya does not love Raj and thus no longer feels threatened by her. It brings to mind Maxim’s confession scene from Hitchcock’s Rebecca, wherein the second Mrs de Winter is elated with the knowledge that her husband desires and loves her, not that Rebecca despised him.
However, neither Tara nor Maya finds peace or happiness. Maya believes that by becoming a courtesan, she has taken charge of her life and that society can no longer tell her what a woman of her caste or stature should do, yet she remains restless. Both women learn to desire, but its fulfillment eludes them. Each wants to be like the other, to have everything the other one has, but Nair proves herself too timid by not dismantling cis-het notions of desire, and thereby not subverting patriarchy. And this problem remains, to a large extent, rooted in the title of the film. After all, Kama Sutra, the text, places the union of yoni and lingam on a pedestal. Nair wastes no time in getting her characters to perform the sexual aspect of the Kama Sutra, but fails to apply, or even understand that, as Rasa Devi says, “The art of love is more important than the act itself.” Nair’s focus seems solely to be on pushing the envelope with sex on conservative Indian screens, on the act. Despite the film’s subtitle, the art of love is rendered meaningless.