Kamasutra: A Tale of Love, a 1996 cinematic relic that failed to find its place in the Indian film industry of the 90s, gets me to question whether such a contentious movie would survive the scrutiny of the new era.
An unapologetic masterpiece or a stark spotlight on societal norms. Did the visionary filmmaker Mira Nair subvert gender stereotypes or reinforce them? Kamasutra: A Tale of Love sparked this debate when it first came out in 1996. In times when sex was considered taboo and Indian cinema, or just cinema in general, was still largely dominated by male perspectives, she told us a story about two young girls, Maya and Tara, who explored the complexities of love and desire. Set in the 16th century, the movie follows Maya, who, in the wake of a heartbreak, embraces her sensuality and becomes the courtesan of the king. The same king who is married to Maya’s former friend Tara is entrapping her in a loveless marriage.
While Nair was applauded by many for the brilliant cinematography seen in the film and the bold portrayal of female sexuality within the Indian context, she also, not so unexpectedly, faced heavy criticism due to its erotic nature. This resulted in the movie being banned in India. Now the pertinent question emerges: if released in the 2020s, would the outcome have remained unchanged?
Taking into account the female-forward intentions of the filmmaker, this movie was set out to portray that sexual desire is something that comes naturally to men and women alike. The female characters actively expressed their sexual inclinations throughout the movie. Inclinations that would have generally been a lot more silent given the time period Beyond sexual desire, Nair’s female characters exhibit a plethora of very powerful emotions, including fury, resentment, and grief. Focusing the story on the journeys of women and putting them at the forefront contributed greatly to the element of gender inclusivity.
Despite the benevolent objectives behind this movie, it received an enormous amount of backlash. While the power dynamics seen in the characters’ interpersonal relationships were a problem for some, the graphic nudity and eroticism infuriated others. The movie was called out for reinforcing stereotypes, insensitive cultural representations, and male dominance at play throughout the entire movie.
The question of whether this movie falls in the realm of commendable or critiqueable is a complicated one, especially if we are to look at it in the context of the 2020s. It’s safe to say that the movie, in today’s time, would potentially offend multiple cultures. Moreover, the evident patriarchy in the film would not align with newer feminist ideals. Although it could be attributed to the film’s historical context, these aspects would still be considered regressive, keeping in mind modern expectations for diversity and inclusivity.
Nevertheless, above everything, there would still be the persistent concern surrounding nudity and mature content, particularly where Indian cinema is involved. “Showing too much ankle” still remains a breach of cultural modesty in our country. While some people would argue that with a few censor cuts, the film could still make it to the big screen, I hold a different standpoint. Sex plays a crucial role in unfolding this narrative; without it, the story would risk losing most of its substance. So it’s fair to conclude that although this movie would have been looked at more positively where the feminist elements are concerned, I still do not think that the Indian audience would allow its release.
“Kamasutra: A Tale of Love” left a permanent mark on the canvas of film history. It is a production shaped by our own, a work of art that is beyond our grasp. As close as the Indian audience is to Mira Nair’s heart, this creation remains forever elusive—a reminder that maybe some stories are never meant to be told.
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Featured Image Credits: IMDb images