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Mira Nair's Camera Sutra
Behind the set of Kama Sutra with the director.

Maya is prepared for her first night as courtesan to the king.

Want to learn more about the birds and the bees? If you were living in the year 300 A.D. you would have turned to Vatsayana's 'Kama Sutra' - the ancient instruction manual on every sexual position known - and unknown - to man. Over the years it has provided knowledge to many a college student camouflaged under the cover of physics text books on the subway.

Well, this is 1997 and not only can the complete text of the Burton translation of Kama Sutra of Vatsayana be downloaded from the World Wide Web, the 'Kama Sutra' of Mira Nair can be seen in theaters across the country - serving you ancient sexual knowledge along with your butter-flavored popcorn.

Critics have called Nair's Kama Sutra 'luminous, exotic, alluring' and 'sumptuous beyond description.' Based partly upon the story 'Hand-Me-Downs' by Waiida Tabassum, the story revolves around two beautiful women, one a royal princess and the other a servant girl. Friends since childhood, there is an undercurrent of rivalry between the two. Tara doles out hand-me-down garments and humiliation to Maya, the underling. But Maya exacts her revenge - on the eve of Tara's wedding to the great king Raj Singh, she slips into the royal tent and seduces the king, in effect giving the royal princess a royal hand-me-down on her wedding night.

Maya, played by Indira Varma, consoles her childhood friend Tara, played by Sarita Choudhury.

For this transgression, she is banned from the kingdom. She learns the art of the courtesan from Rasa Devi, the priestess of sensuality who teaches the lessons of the Kamasutra. The sexual chess game continues with the addition of yet another player, Jai Singh the court sculptor. Rules cease to exist as passion turns servants into masters, and rulers into pawns.

While Kama Sutra is definitely about sex, Nair says in her mind it was never just about the love-making but more about the 'the sensuality of the everyday life in this period, of the way these characters live and dress and move. The whole play and touch of the society creates a climate of eroticism.'

At first glance, this opulent erotic love story may seem far removed from her earlier subjects, forgotten outsiders living on the margins of society. But Kama Sutra has strong, resilient female characters, and deals boldly with human sexuality, a subject Hindi movies pussyfoot about.

Nair observes: 'The direct inspiration for making Kama Sutra was the sickness and subversity that I see between men and women on the Indian screen today, that in the name of not showing a sexual act or direct love between men and women, they have convoluted sexuality so much to show a twisted and subversive rendition, particularly of women. 'You can't show the sex act so therefore you show rape and the humiliation of women, as opposed to the love act itself. I find it extraordinary that this is really the country which compiled the Kama Sutra and treatises on the physical and philosophical skills of making love. Kama Sutra is an emotional and sexual chess game between two men and two women, and not a lecture by any means.'

Maya, chief courtesan to the king steals a moment alone with her true love, sculptor Jai Kumar, played by Ramun Tikaram.

Kama Sutra has been her magnificent obsession for two years, as she hunted for the ideal locations and for her two sensual, strong heroines. She placed open calls in United States, India and London: 'I must have seen about 700 women to find Indira Varma who makes her debut in this film. She's a young Indian actress who lives in London and has just graduated from RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts).'

Varma plays the very sensual Maya while Sarita Choudhury plays Tara, the royal princess. Naveen Andrews, who was seen recently in The English Patient is the libertine King Raj Singh, and Ramon Tikaram plays the sculptor Jai Kumar. Bollywood's own Rekha plays the legendary Rasa Devi.

"I wanted to make it an opulent Salaam Bombay',' recalls Nair, 'because it was made with the same grit and the same kind of passion, putting all I have into a movie, materially and emotionally. It's a fairly radical, brave movie.'

Mira Nair directs a crowd scene.

She says it was a brutal film to make because she had to recreate the drama and magnificence of 16th century India on a budget. She calls it her 'epic on a peanut' for she had to resort to ingenuity to reproduce the opulent costumes and jewels of ancient India.

She says, 'I have a bee in my bonnet about the fact that so much fashion from Romeo Gigli to Dries Van Noten to Versace, so much is really a rip-off from India. And you never see it on Indian or international screens so I said, hell, I'm going to just go and deal with what I love in our fashion and our clothes, and make the clothes, while they are period, as contemporary and stylish as possible but in the Indian way.'

To capture the glory of that period, Nair wanted to use only real jewels, and turned to the many women in her large extended family. She laughs: 'Everything was stunning and real. We called them the Crown Jewels and you can imagine the tension for three months on the set with all those jewels. My grandmother, if she was to see the women in those love-making scenes with all those jewels and nothing else on them, she would faint!' Indeed, eroticism was the main goal of the fashion design. One especially revealing outfit designed by Eduardo Castro consisted entirely of plastic pearls woven together like a suit of chain mail. Recalls Indira Varma, 'We had four jewelers on set sewing that one directly onto my body. It took four hours every time.' To look like Khajuraho frescoes come to life, both the lead actresses had to wear very revealing costumes. Says Varma: 'Every costume showed our midriffs. We all had to embark on a strict exercise regime before starting the picture.'

Both Indira Varma and Sarita Choudhury spent three weeks learning Indian dance under Protima Gauri at the Nrityagram School on the outskirts of Bangalore. According to Varma, 'We lived in mud huts and did yoga every morning before beginning our training. The Odissi dancing was hard to learn because it's stylized and has a very specific language of movements. It has a raw passion that Mira wanted me to capture on film. She called it an ancientness.'

Maya seduces the king Raj Singh, played by Naveen Andrews.

Once again, only real palaces and forts would do for Nair. The film was shot in actual palaces in Khajuraho and Jaipur, and the film unit had to do a major makeover, refurbishing ruins which were bat-infested and soot-ridden, hiring 500 laborers with coconut husks to take out all the soot. The permanent crew numbered 300 people, including the principal cast.

"The amount of work that went into the simplest operations was amazing,' recalls Naveen Andrews. 'One day some huge date palm trees were used for set dressing and had to be hauled up into the fort. It took ten men over six hours to move the trees under the hot blistering sun.'

So a golden time and place has been resurrected in this lush production of Kama Sutra, on a budget. According to Nair, the look of the film was 'inspired by primeval things: stone, mud, earth. And in the court, I went against excessive ornamentation, we went more for opulent minimalism.'

An Indian woman who saw Kama Sutra exclaimed, 'It's so amazing to see Indians making love on the screen because you never get to see that in Hindi films. We never see our culture and the kind of incredible intricacies and layering of our civilization in this real, stylish contemporary way on the screen.'

Top: Raj Singh seduces his bride Tara. Bottom: He admires his courtesan Maya.

Kama Sutra has been tangled in bureaucratic hurdles in India and Mira Nair is not exactly a poster child for the Indian censor board. She says, 'India in its post-colonial phase has gotten so far away from the native spirit that created The Kama Sutra. Sexuality is so repressed now, so twisted, especially in the media.' The film was bound to create controversy in India with its prim censors and film lovers who must resort to running around bushes to vent their energy.

She points out about her earlier film: 'India Cabaret tried to explore a woman's place in a patriarchal society and the double standards when it comes to women who are considered outside society. I always seek to question what is considered good, what is considered proper. I don't buy society's norms.'

Nair, who moved back to India from New York some years back, believes that by moving away from New York and living in Asia, there has been an interesting shift in her point of view. 'Your point of view no longer revolves around America or American movies. Even if you live here for any length of time and have this as your base, it affects you, your yardstick for success. Especially in my work, Hollywood knocks all the time and it's tempting. The struggle is there, the temptations are there, the facade is so much more attractive than the reality. You have to constantly be distracted by that sort of thing, whereas in Africa or India, the point of reference is very different, the point of reference is usually reality for me, not the New York Times.'

She adds, 'I don't live here any more, but I'm at home here. But I don't want to buy the system. Hollywood films are really about creating a kind of generic world that everybody will understand, that everybody will be pleased with. They're so terrified of offending anyone.' At the same time she is all praise for the independent films which are about 'expressing yourself, about creating a new type of frontier.'

Nair's mother Pravin, who lives with her in Delhi, recalls Mira as a very self-assured young girl who always worked for and got what she wanted, whether it was the lead role of Cleopatra in the college play or a scholarship to Harvard. Even today, Nair doesn't believe in waiting with a begging bowl for Hollywood to make her kind of film; she raises the money and makes it on her own.

She recalls about her earlier experience with the big guns of Hollywood: 'The buck didn't stop with me, it stopped with a whole bunch of people, always politicking and strategizing. I don't think films need to be made that way. Some moron in a mall in Illinois shouldn't tell you how to end your film but that's what they subscribe to with all this market research.'

Nair does not believe that Hollywood is inaccessible to people of color: 'It's not so much who you are, it's what you're choosing to do. If I was doing a feature with Glen Close, then the money would be available. But it's just the theme of what you wish to do. And I think that's what important, the representations of our own color, our own reality on the international screen is the most important task we can set ourselves. No one is going to hand me this opportunity - I create the opportunity to make such films. No one is going to hand it to me.'

Top: Maya caresses the face of her lover Jai Kumar. Bottom: Two students from the royal court practice the arts of the Kama Sutra.

She adds, 'All that does not sit well with me but of course there are some films which can only be made with that system, it all depends on who you get to work with. There are some very good people out there but you can land up with people who really drive you up the wall. But I'm sure I'll cook up an idea one day which will need millions of dollars and then I will take up someone's offer.'

Nair is happiest being her own boss and producing, directing and marketing her own films, her own way. She admits it was very difficult raising funds for her first feature film, and it does not get much easier, especially if you want to keep full artistic and creative control over your film. She says, ' I wanted to control this film entirely - I'd rather risk my success or failure with the film. I don't want somebody to just buy me off. I'm happier doing this, because I'm not really in it for the money and I really like the fact of owning one's skill, one's talent.'

She adds, 'It's exciting to be represented out there. In Kama Sutra I've put the titles in Hindi because I want some Indian in Amsterdam or wherever to suddenly see his or her own script on screen. It's empowering. It's beautiful script and it's ours and we must be proud of it.'