March 17, 1997 12:00 PM

Indira Varma, Sarita Choudhury, Ramon Tikaram, Naveen Andrews

Its title, which evokes the famous ancient Indian how-to sex manual, makes Kama Sutra sound like a cheesy dirty movie in which a pseudo-scientist in a white lab coat pontificates while sweaty couples go at it. Wrong. Kama is the latest offering from the eminently respectable Mira Nair, a writer-director whose previous films include Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Mississippi Masala (1992). That said, there is still plenty to gape at in this flawed but frankly erotic tale of love and lust in 16th-century India. The movie wants to differentiate between mere physical union and the more meaningful union of two souls. Kama’s servant-girl heroine (Varma, a ravishing newcomer with swanlike grace) tolerates the first with a possessive raja (Andrews, who played the bomb-defusing Sikh in The English Patient), but rapturously discovers the latter with a longhaired, sinewy sculptor (Tikaram). The plot doesn’t bear close examination, but the comely cast and the richness of the settings and costumes make Kama a sumptuous feast for the eyes. (Not rated)

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