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Set in the lush, frankly erotic world of 16th-century India, Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love is a celebration of that country’s traditional art, culture, and religion. Still, it almost didn’t get released there.

“I had an enormous battle with the censor board of India,” explains the writer/director during the Washington stop of what she describes as a “rape-and-pillage” publicity tour. “They wanted me to remove all sensuality from a film that deals with sensuality.”

That was impossible, she says, because “the eros of this film is equally about the mundane, about the banal.” A tale of sexual liaisons and rivalries among four people—a dissolute prince, his inhibited new bride, the bride’s earthy former servant, and the sculptor who takes the latter woman as his muse—”is imbued with a sensuality from beginning to end.”

“The whole connection

of eros with the divine is something that is very deeply imbued in our culture, our religious iconography, our classics, and our mythology,” the director explains. “And we’ve come a hell of a far

way from that, in terms of the media representation.

I made the film to counter

the perversity with which human sexuality is portrayed on the screen, not just in India but internationally.”

In the censors’ approved version, marvels Nair, “there was not a significant provocative line that was cut, not a single idea. It was just flesh” that concerned the authorities. Depictions of violent rapes and sexual embraces involving performers wearing wet, clingy clothing are permitted in Indian film, the director notes, while straightforward nudity is banned. “[The censors] just couldn’t handle a direct look that was lacking in artifice and coquetry,” she says.

In a move that could have a far-reaching effect on Indian cinema, Nair took her case to the Indian Supreme Court. “The court had a far more enlightened point of view. Their cuts, which are slightly more than two minutes, are completely acceptable to me,” says the director, who spent 15 years in the U.S. before returning to her native land. (She recently moved to South Africa with her Ugandan husband, whom she met while filming Mississippi Masala in his country.)

Nair’s struggle to preserve her vision for Kama Sutra parallels the battle over her last feature, The Perez Family. That was a Hollywood film, however, so the issue was not sex but subtlety.

Ironically, Nair explains, The Perez Family was doomed because “it tested really well in the director’s cut. So they began to smell a hit, and then they started breathing down my neck. They wanted to up the ante. They thought I should make Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I wanted to make quite a different film, on the nature of exile.” So her “tragicomic, magical realist” film became a broader comedy that failed to impress audiences or most critics. “It was a damn good lesson,” she concludes.

Nair says she didn’t simply retreat to India after The Perez Family experience, however. She had already written the Kama Sutra script and was determined to proceed on her own terms.

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“I’ve had the privilege—whatever it is, the luck—of making films that have made money, beginning with Salaam Bombay!,” Nair’s naturalistic fiction-film debut, which drew on techniques she learned as documentarian. “So I do have offers; I do have places to go, even with films that are outside the mainstream.

“I presold Kama Sutra to four countries in Europe, and found a new investor along the way, from Japan. That’s how we did this film. Very purposefully avoiding American finance. Because I had a pretty bad experience with Hollywood. So I didn’t want to deal with an American distributor until the film was completed.

“In India, there was an absolute bidding war,” boasts Nair, only to retreat. “I shouldn’t say that, because a lot of it came with conditions— ‘Get the damn thing censored and we’ll release it.’ So I sold it to the guy who was unconditionally for it while it was in the thick of the censor battle.

“The most important thing for me is creative control,” she adds. “Making a film is just too obsessive and too difficult to then have some person tell you what to do when you’re actually in the battlefield.”

India has one of the world’s largest film industries, and some of Nair’s films have done well there. Yet she doesn’t expect ever to work within the Bombay studio system known as “Bollywood,” which produces mostly musicals on romantic themes. “I have concrete offers to work within the industry,” she says, “if I wanted to make that kind of film. But that kind of filmmaking—I mean, I just have a different point of view.”

Though filmed on location in India, Kama Sutra relied on American independent-film veterans like cinematographer Declan Quinn (who shot Leaving Las Vegas) and production designer Mark Friedberg. The film’s principal actors are of Indian heritage, but are all based in either the United States or Britain: Indira Varma, Ramon Tikaram, Sarita Choudhury (who appeared in Mississippi Masala), and Naveen Andrews (who plays Kip in The English Patient).

Nair says she didn’t begin by eliminating performers who live in India. “I must have looked at 1,500 women, Indian and Asian actresses, all over this country, England, India. And I found who I did. It’s a tough call. It’s very hard to find young actors who can play half-child, half-woman, who can carry a whole film, and were comfortable with the nudity and sensuality in a very direct, unabashed way.”

“Some of the recognized stars that exist there,” she admits, “I was not so interested in. The look is very different, more bimbette-pretty rather than intelligent. So I didn’t even look that much in the film industry. Actors are cast there to sing and dance, and if it so happens that you can emote, it’s fantastic. But it’s not really a requirement.”

The sumptuous, boldly art-directed Kama Sutra has a look a musical might well envy, but Nair still thinks in terms of documentary. “I called it an opulent Salaam Bombay!, in that it had to feel real,” she says. “The background had to smell

of reality.”

“I’m very interested in making something as dense visually as possible,” she continues. “And in the writing of the piece I always try to capture the inexplicability of everyday life, the ambiguities of it rather than the Hollywood-machine manipulation. But I’m much more interested now in using those influences in fiction. It doesn’t interest me that much to return to the street. I’d rather do heightened realism, or magical realism.”

“I’m much more inspired working in the real places. The film was a direct countering of the sort of papier-mâché historical epic that you are spooned. I wasn’t interested in that.”

Nair is also not especially interested in another encounter with Hollywood, although she still receives scripts regularly from her American agent. On this publicity tour, she says, she has abandoned unpromising screenplays at virtually every hotel. Of making any of these scripts, she laughs, “I just can’t imagine it.”—Mark Jenkins