Saturday, July 16, 2016


                At some point early in 1997 I was grabbed by the trailer of a new film called “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love”. The title suggested something sexually explicit – but what the trailer showed was an opulent spectacle, set in some long ago period of Indian history. Full of peacock colors, dazzling architecture and DeMille-like sweep. For me – a sword and sandal fan – this was manna in the peplum-starved desert of the 90’s. I now know “Kama Sutra” was a British-American-Indian co-production, helmed by Mira Nair, a talented director of Indian descent who – although based in the U.K. – enjoyed using her art to celebrate her cultural roots. I went to the movie and loved it - a perfumed garden full of sensuality, surging jealousy-stoked emotions, intoxicatingly beautiful sets and costumes . Performances were compelling, the drama both elemental and sophisticated. This wasn’t a Bollywood film. Its pedigree was multi-national.  And there was no parade of song numbers. In the years following, Nair became most famous for the worldwide hit “Monsoon Wedding”. She also directed a version of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” with Reese Witherspoon, which I love. And currently Disney is about to release her Africa-set “Queen of Katwe” (with Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo); positive buzz on this one is already circulating.  
            As I said, I really enjoyed Nair’s “Kama Sutra” And eventually bought the DVD. I actually wanted to re-watch it before I posted this. But – like so many things – it seems to be MIA somewhere in my apartment. I know exactly what shelf it sat on for years. But one day I took it into my head to re-organize that corner. And that particular item re-organized itself into oblivion. Yet another argument for inertia. The movie’s entire cast was splendid (I believe Naveen Andrews later enjoyed great success on the TV series “Lost”.  Never saw it– but I remember talk of the thing was culturally inescapable for awhile. Anyway, one “Kama Sutra” cast member in particular, riveted me to the screen. She was an actress – maybe 30, maybe 40 –who went by the single name, Rekha.  She didn’t play one of the leads – the role was more of a prolonged cameo. Remember the complicated cast lists of those Italian peplum epics that boasted, “con la partizipazione straordinario di (fill in the name)"?  Well  Rekha’s presence in this film seemed an occasion that genuinely cried out for that sort of grandiose Cinecitta-billing. She played Rasa Devi, a wise maternal figure – who also happened to be an instructress of seduction –Kama Sutra style. Rekha had everything. The stillness of a goddess.  Yet - when she moved - grace itself. Her voice was fascinating –what you’d expect to hear if silk could speak. Charisma to burn.  And – oh, yes – that face. Exquisitely, glamorously beautiful, the effect compounded by the fact that she was a startling look-alike for one of Hollywood’s golden age queens, Merle Oberon. Hard to believe they weren’t blood relatives. I don’t know if the photos below will convey that. But onscreen, in elegant motion, these two are cinematic sisters.