An attractive cast, exotic locale and provocative title are about all that *Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love*, has going for it. While that’s more than a lot of movies can boast, it is far from enough. Writer-director Mira Nair’s sudsy tale of sexual politics and obsession in 16th century India is boring and insubstantial despite the acres of tawny, well-formed flesh on view.
*Kama Sutra* is the saga of two women, girlhood friends Maya (Indira Varma) and Tara (Sarita Choudhury), who grow up to be rivals. Tara marries a king (Naveen Andrews of *The English Patient*); Maya becomes the same king’s chief courtesan, and the object of his obsessive love, after she, in a pique of envy, seduces him on his wedding night. Meanwhile, Maya falls in love with a sculptor (Ramon Tikaram), who is also obsessed by her beauty. You need a flow-chart to follow the complicated love paths in *Kama Sutra*: the king loves Maya, Maya loves the sculptor, Tara might love the king (although her first and only sexual experience was brief and unpleasant because she was untrained in the ways of Kama Sutra, the 4th century manual of erotic arts), and the sculptor loves Maya. So, the king and the sculptor are rivals for a woman who loves only one of them, and Maya and Tara are rivals for a man neither of them really loves. Everybody is miserable, including Maya, who *is* trained in Kama Sutra, and skillfully and enjoyably makes love to the king, the sculptor *and* Tara.
In between all the erotic shenanigans, which are neither as frequent nor as innovative as the title might lead some to hope, Maya is instructed in the philosophy of the Kama Sutra, which apparently amounts to this: real love, unlike physical love, is mysterious and complicated and there are no rules.
*Kama Sutra* has a certain *National Geographic* quality to it. The scenery and cinematography are beautiful, with everything bathed in a radiant saffron light, while the people in these scenes have a certain distant exoticism, like the naked inhabitants of some foreign culture who arrive camouflaged not by a plain brown wrapper, but under the guise of anthropology. Despite the inherent splendor of India’s landscape and architecture, *Kama Sutra* falls victim to the very anachronism that helps make Hercules movies so ridiculous (the ones set amid the *ruins* of ancient Greece, which were neither ruined nor ancient when ol’ Herc was battling monsters there): four centuries ago, the beautiful temples and castles on view in *Kama Sutra* were probably not decayed and blackened by acid rain.
Despite the soap operatic intrigues, the performances in *Kama Sutra* are generally quite restrained. Andrews’ selfish king is indolent and debauched, addicted to opium, addicted to sex, and disinterested in the affairs of his state; he’s a prime candidate for a twelve-step program (although as things turn out in *Kama Sutra*, he probably won’t have the time). Tikaram is part Fabio, part sensitive guy, long-haired and tightly muscled, virile but tender and soulful in contrast to the treacherous king. Varma is voluptuous and regal as Maya, a love goddess whose power over men brings a tempest of misery and tragedy, while she remains the sad, serene center of the storm. Choudhury’s Tara is essentially a huffy, spiteful Valley Girl, fighting for the captain of the football team.
The melodramatic, sudsy plot of *Kama Sutra* is an uncompelling distraction from the gauzy, languorous visual sensuality of the film. *Kama Sutra* disproves its own thesis, such as it is, about the transcendence of soulful love over physical love, by surrounding an emotionally vacant and unengaging core with a lavish, gorgeous, and slightly more interesting physical spectacle.