I can think of countless less pleasurable ways to spend two hours at the movies than staring at the voluptuously entwined bodies of Mira Nair’s libidinous fever dream, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. The film features an actress new to the screen, Indira Varma, who is an erotic spectacle all by herself. Varma has sculpted aristocratic features — aquiline nose, almond eyes, thin lips that break into a twitch of a smile — that don’t prepare you for the luxurious fleshiness of her body. She’s like an amorous sculpture come to life. That, of course, could also describe many a fashion model, but Varma, who radiates an almost preconscious joy in the power of her femininity, doesn’t have the commodified blankness of today’s multimillion-dollar cover girls. Kama Sutra is set in an Indian kingdom during the 16th century, and Nair’s conceit is that these faraway characters, in their polite, decorous way, had a more potent sense of the erotic within the everyday than we, with all our frenzied sexual packaging, do.
The film takes its title from the famous fourth-century manual of erotic arts, but Kama Sutra isn’t a movie about people having sex while standing on their heads. Instead, it has a mood of overripe sensuality — a commingling of skin, sweat, lust, and love — that hits you like opium. The four principal characters are pulled between extremes of bliss and despair. Varma, a servant girl, becomes the object of worship for two men — a selfish young king (Naveen Andrews) who has married her former mistress (Sarita Choudhury), and a handsome sculptor (Ramon Tikaram) who becomes obsessed with her beauty, then her soul. Kama Sutra is a fairy tale that keeps melting into erotic reverie. Nair deliberately sacrifices dramatic verve to the flow of imagery. At times, the film feels fuzzy and ill-disciplined, yet I’m glad Nair had the daring to create this atmosphere; it’s as if her storytelling had been drugged with hormones. Andrews, who was the saintly, long-haired Kip in The English Patient, displays a feral malevolence as the king, a man who, for all his oversexed drive, can possess but never love. And Ramon Tikaram, who plays this film’s long-haired hunk, has a virility soulful enough to rival that of Antonio Banderas. Basking in the presence of performers like these — and the amazing Indira Varma — is a big part of what moviegoing is about.