Indian censors lay down the reel position on Kama Sutra

The film-maker Mina Nair (left) is rocking society with a production of the most famous sex-book that `empowers women', writes Jan McGirk in New Delhi

Indian censors are taking a variety of positions on the Kama Sutra. The film-maker Mira Nair, whose latest feature is inspired by the world's most venerable sex-book, says most of these would prove impossible for her. A special tribunal in Bombay will rule this week on Ms Nair's appeal against a ban on the uncut version of her film.

The review committee has called for the award-winning director to "delete sexuality" from her Kama Sutra - A Tale of Love, and specifies 14 explicit scenes that must be cut before Indian audiences would be allowed to see the film.

While battling to get her erotic vision passed by censors - who wanted only seven cuts after the initial viewing but recently doubled their list - Ms Nair has shown sneak previews of the English-language film to middle- class audiences in New Delhi and Bombay.(A Hindi version will also be released.)

In the cinema, there was utter silence as nude bodies writhed on-screen. Close-ups of naked women caressing each other, the noises of foreplay, full-frontal nudity, and obvious oral sex under the blankets seemed to stun a sophisticated group more accustomed to coy Hindi film conventions. Even on-screen kisses were rare until the last few years, and nubile bodies still tend to be draped in wet saris. Passion, usually mimed by dancing around trees or made melodramatic in hackneyed rape scenes, suddenly loomed large. "It was raw, and it did disturb me," said Amrita, a young film- buff eager to see the latest work by the director of the acclaimed Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala, "But there was nothing you could call raunchy."

Ms Nair said: "How do they expect us to have a nation with nearly a billion people without knowing about sex?" Educated in a Himalayan convent before attending Harvard and achieving international acclaim, the director is not oblivious to Indian sensibilities.

"It is absolute hypocrisy to say that India is not ready for this. It's just a visceral reaction to flesh. Sex that is repressed becomes taboo, pernicious, and twisted ...These women [in the film] empower themselves. It is a narrative tale of sexual politics, back before the Mughals came. I try to marry Eros with the divine."

Ms Nair, who already has an Indian distributor lined up, plans screenings across India for all-female audiences, all-male audiences, and for couples only. The idea emerged when women viewers in Bombay requested some cinema owners to ban men from afternoon showings of last year's controversial film Bandit Queen, by Shashi Kapoor. That film also suffered at the hands of the censors before being certified for distribution.

Kama Sutra, unlike the soft-porn Emmanuelle, which brought blue movies mainstream in the 1970s, is seen from a woman's point of view. The males are mostly insensitive brutes. A jealous servant girl winds up at a school for courtesans after she seduces her royal mistress's husband on the eve of the big wedding. Later she returns to give the spurned wife some pointers. Passionate, obsessive, selfish, and unrequited love - all are explored through this tale of rivalry. "Men generally feel threatened by this movie," Ms Nair said. "The women are so knowing." Ironically, a woman justice heads the censorship tribunal."I think she caught my wavelength," Ms Nair said."

Kama Sutra - a Tale of Love stars Rekha, a fortyish star who crossed over from the potboilers pumped out by India's "Bollywood", and casts her as a sexual maestro with provocative apprentices. It also introduces the beautiful Indira Verma as the plotting servant. After getting kudos in San Sebastian and Toronto, Ms Nair feared overexposure and withdrew the movie from the London film festival. It is due to premiere on Valentine's Day in the United States and should be in London cinemas by early spring.

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