Forbidden love

Mira Nair, the director who made Denzel Washington a star in 'Missippi Masala', has returned to her roots with 'Kama Sutra'. But the Indian censors would prefer her to take it elsewhere.
Click to follow
Film-maker Mira Nair is fuming. And, although the award-winning Indian director is speaking all the way from Cape Town, the line itself seems to be crackling with rage. "I'm furious. It's victimisation. And now," she adds, "the chairman of this bloody censor board - who has made the sickest, most obscene films himself, and who is only known in India for bringing the bikini to the screen - can't stand my guts because the movie is doing really well elsewhere. It's just envy and spite. But this is what I have to fight."

The cause of all this spleen is Ms Nair's fourth film, Kama Sutra, sub- titled "A Tale of Love"; but right now there doesn't seem to be much of that lost between Nair and her more officious fellow countrymen. Yet her film started out, at its very beginning at least, as a love letter, a valentine from Nair to her beloved motherland. "I had been longing for some time," she says "to set a film in an India before it fell under foreign - British or Mogul - influence, when spirituality and sexuality were not necessarily divorced and daily life was suffused with omnipresent sensuality."

Four years ago, when she first embarked upon Kama Sutra, Mira Nair was one of India's most successful exports - "the prodigal daughter", as she now dryly describes herself. Salaam Bombay, her Oscar-nominated debut feature about an 11-year-old boy forced on to the streets after being abandoned by his parents, was never approved for release in India; nevertheless it instantly turned Nair into a star of international cinema. Her Hollywood follow-up, the interracial love story Mississippi Masala, was another commercial success which, in turn, launched the career of its male lead, Denzel Washington. And although her last film, The Perez Family, did surprisingly badly at the box-office, this partly owed something to the fact that she was brought in at the last minute to salvage a sinking project. Perhaps burnt by that experience, Nair has gone back to her roots.

Yet it's still surprising just how far the 39-year-old director has gone in her pursuit of a "non-acrobatic" Kama Sutra. While her film undoubtedly contains what one American critic calls "red-hot vindaloo-style, sari- ripping sex", it is not a precise, or even imprecise, re-enactment of the best-selling fifth-century Hindu sex manual. Rather, it owes more to potboiling Bollywood movies. Nair's version is set at a lavish, louche court in 15th-century Rajasthan, presided over by the debauched king Raj Singh - played (to the hilt) by Naveen Andrews of Buddha of Suburbia fame - and his bride-to-be, the proud Princess Tara. Here, the beautiful but vexatious servant-girl Maya (Indira Varma), annoyed at being fed all her life from her mistress's leftovers, decides to return the favour by stealing into the king's lair on his wedding night and seducing him. And so, once ousted and exiled, she brushes up on her Kama Sutra Tantric-technique with a top-seeded courtesan before returning for another bout with the reprobate Raj.

In Nair's skilled hands, though, this sort of lurid Bollywood melodrama is a pretext for unabashed, gleefully reclaimed eroticism. For this is a film engorged with colour - honeyed flesh, vermilion silks, rubies, bejewelled head-dresses and sheaths of pearls - as well as by a sinuous sensuality which, when the film was shown at a special preview in front of a selected audience from the Guild of Erotic Writers, left most of its members asking in wistful tones, "Where exactly is Rajasthan?"

"Yes," deadpans Nair, "it's an opulent Salaam Bombay." Aside, though, from introducing us to the pleasures of the butterfly kiss or waking up your lover by trailing a hibiscus flower between his shoulder blades, Nair insists that her film tries to be holistic in its attitude towards sex. "I didn't want the sexuality to be domesticised or compartmentalised so that it only exists in this arena, not that. But rather it was to be, as the Kama Sutra says, about 'the art of living'. That way the most banal objects - water, stone, mud, earth, even rocks - can be seamlessly integrated into sensuality. And also," she adds, "in that way, sexuality can be given a spiritual dimension."

Asked what she means by this transcendent approach, she gives an example: "Nowadays, India is a totally sexually repressed, twisted place - in our cinema, media, and society. Yet the paradox is that every day on my way to the set [at the 11th-century temples of Khajuro] every banyan tree I passed had a little statue of a lingam and a yoni - the phallus and the vagina meeting, with a fresh flower, incense and a coconut in a bowl. Every morning, anywhere you went. So that belief, that the union of the male and the female is sacred, is also alive, well, worshipped and perpetuated."

Nair bursts into one of the full-throated laughs that frequently punctuate her stories; then, as if she's drawing back, she says, "For me, the film was an indulgence of two of my great loves: one is women and the other aesthetics. For one reason or another," she continues, "I'm always working in the gutter, but here was a chance to really set the record straight about Indian aesthetics and show how incredibly refined our culture is in terms of fabric, costume and colour." She then explains exactly how this is applied in India. "The court life, for instance, was about fire and opulence, but even the colours there were informed by the ancient text, the Shilpa Shastra, where each colour has a symbol: red embodies lust and love; lime green is the evocation of spring, the blossoming of love. So everything has a meaning, and I tried to use it all."

As for Nair's other love, she intended her Kama Sutra to be "made as reaction against the enormous dividing line in movies between the virgin and the whore. I wanted," she says, "to make a film about a complicated woman, a woman who is not afraid to express herself sexually, who is very open about her desire but not judged for it in the usual sort of shitty way that most movies indulge in."

In that sense, perhaps, the fairest description of Nair's Kama Sutra is that it's an Eastern woman's version of a Western - where the women ride off into the sunset - but, at the expense of the men. At the same time, though, Nair is aware that it was her film's sexual politics - as well as its sexual positions - which immersed her in the bureaucratic nightmare that goes by the name of Indian film censorship. "I was naive enough not to take that problem too seriously. But now I truly believe that a lot of what happened was caused by the fact that I'm a woman."

In fact, "what happened" led Nair on such a merry-go-round it would have left Kafka feeling dizzy. She knew from the outset that making a film with such a title was inviting a storm, especially in a country that still doesn't allow billboard advertising of underwear - for either men or women - so, during production, the film was shot under the cover of the title "Tara and Maya" after its two protagonists. For the main seduction scene, the director even threw housecoats over her actors and then gave them fake "super-soap opera" dialogue because 24 members of the local legislative assembly had suddenly descended upon the set for a sneak preview of the action. But this was just a foretaste of the official interference to come.

Suffice to say that Nair cut her film, recut it, submitted it to one censorship committee, took it to a revising committee, and was then faced with a 12-page legal edict demanding that "every shot of nudity be reduced to a flash". "So, I asked them, 'What is a flash?' They said, 'Four feet in frame length.' I thought, 'That's OK because most of the nude shots are less than four feet anyway.' So I went to America where I recut, rescored and remixed the movie. It cost me $60,000 but I didn't want India - which is my most important audience - to think that they were getting the usual hack job." When Nair returned though, 12 new cuts were asked for; so she went to another tribunal for yet another court hearing which declared that the new ad hoc cuts were null and void. Then the censorship board said, "Let's redefine the flash."

By now, Nair's voice is sounding alternately exhausted and amused. She's been hounded on her doorstep in New Delhi for the past six months by the press but she still digs out something funny about the situation. Just before she left for Cape Town where her husband, a Ugandan professor of political science has a teaching job, she decided to show Kama Sutra to New Delhi's glitterati and media crowd. At the end, an elderly gentleman who turned out to be the Attorney-General, approached Nair and said, "You know, your film is an insurmountable contribution to Indian culture." To which Nair replied: "Then you must support my struggle." "Well," he said, looking thoughtful, "We are a nation of sanctimonious bastards."

Aside from this advice, Nair has gone on the offensive. She's side-stepping the censor's demands by suing the board for "loss of revenue and harassment". The hearing was set for last Monday; but it is most likely that the case will drag on "ad infinitum" because this sort of hearing requires the presence of three judges and, according to Nair, "that is saying it will be delayed forever, because who in India can ever get three judges in one place at one time. It's a pretty bad situation," she admits. At that moment, her voice almost slips into despondency, but when she's asked, "What are you going to do now?" she rouses herself, "I'm off to America next month to do a movie with Ellen Barkin, Marisa Tomei and Naveen Andrews, who plays the central character - an Indian doctor in the American south. So I'm going from sex to Aids." But won't this cause yet more censorship problems? "Yes," she laughs, "more fire under their bums" n

'Kama Sutra' opens 20 June. Tom Dewe Mathews' 'Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain' is published by Chatto & Windus