Perfumed Garden/Tales of the Kama Sutra/Perfumed Garden: Tales of the Kama Sutra (1998) **
If the evidence of pop culture can be taken at anything like face value, it seems probable that no other Asian nation save Japan is as well endowed with jaw-droppingly gorgeous women as India. And because India also happens to produce more movies per year than any other country on Earth, you might expect there to be hundreds upon hundreds of Indian sexploitation movies out there waiting to be discovered. This seems not to be the case, however. In addition to torturously long running times and a puzzling insistence upon wedging lengthy and distracting song-and-dance numbers into virtually any film, regardless of genre, theme, or mood, the Indian movie industry suffers from a maddening prudishness regarding nudity. This, my friends, is where that Good Old American Ingenuity you’ve heard so much about comes in. If the Indians aren’t going to make softcore on their own, then by gum, we’re just going to have to bop on over to India, hire a bunch of fine South Asian hotties, and make it for them. With Perfumed Garden: Tales of the Kama Sutra, Jag Mundhra shows that he’s got the right idea about how to fill this lamentable vacuum in the cinema of his homeland, but also makes it clear that he doesn’t quite trust his instincts, with the result that the movie falls frustratingly flat in a number of places.
The real problem is Michael (Ivan Baccarat) and Lisa (Amy Lindsay, from Confessions of a Lap Dancer and Femalien II). This generically pretty Southern California couple are obviously present solely because Mundhra was afraid no one in the Western Hemisphere would watch his movie unless it had white people in the starring roles. Michael is an art preservationist specializing in early-second millennium Indian sculpture, who works for an LA gallery director named Daerco (Kip King). Daerco’s Anglo wife, Sally (Kim Dawson, of Lurid Tales: Castle Queen and I Like to Play Games Too), has a younger sister whom she has recently set up with Michael. That, in case you were wondering, is Lisa. Her job is a bit less intellectual than her new boyfriend’s, but you could make the case that being a fashion designer still puts her at least on the periphery of the arts. The two of them are also having some kind of unspecified relationship troubles— he doesn’t seem to be impotent per se, but he certainly exhibits a degree of sexual disinterest in her that is quite shocking for a character in a softcore sex flick. Not only that, Michael is caught up in his job to such an extent that Lisa is beginning to feel an outright rivalry with the musty old statues that fill up his workshop at the gallery. When Michael volunteers to make a trip to India to help a friend of Daerco’s restore the statuary in the temple complex at Khojuraho, it looks at first like it may be all over for him and Lisa.
The thing is, though, that Michael loves Lisa at least as much as she loves him. In fact, that appears to be the source of all the angst. Michael knows that he is obsessed with his work, and that he will never be able to offer Lisa what he describes as a “normal” life. Accordingly, he figures the day must inevitably come when she will grow dissatisfied, and begin looking for other men to provide what Michael cannot. Lisa doesn’t buy it, though. Far from accepting Michael’s impending departure for India as a convenient stopping point for their relationship, she proposes to come with him, using her own boss’s desire for something exotic and unexpected to serve as the unifying theme for the company’s new line of merchandise as an excuse to make the journey. After much heartfelt but ultimately pointless arguing, Michael and Lisa board the plane together when it leaves a week or two later.
Michael’s boss in Khojuraho is named Prashat (Nasser— surnames are still far from universal in South Asia), and he takes his new restorer on a guided tour of the temple complex on his first day in town. There’s no shortage of decaying statuary in need of repair (modern erosive agents like acid rain are hell on 1000-year-old sandstone), but there is one sculpture in particular that Prashat wants Michael to work on. It is a full-scale, standing female figure, sculpted in the round from some unidentified pinkish stone, and Prashat is completely baffled by it, as it does not mesh with the style of the temple’s thousands of other carvings. Knowing nothing of its true origins, or of the identity of its subject, Prashat has dubbed the statue “the Stunning Woman.” But Michael never gets a chance to apply his talents to the Stunning Woman, because it mysteriously disappears that very night.
Since we’re in India, it’s all but inevitable that the mystical and the inscrutable will be rearing their heads at some point, so it probably won’t take you long to make the connection when Michael and Lisa begin encountering a very real Stunning Woman in their travels around the city. Her name is Loni (the hypnotically lovely Rajeshwari Sachdev, who apparently is an actress of some consequence in her home country), and she makes her first appearance by recommending a sari and a good English-language edition of the Kama Sutra to Lisa in a curio shop downtown. Of course, while Loni is developing a friendship with Lisa, she’s also drawn the eye of the woman’s boyfriend, especially once she lets it be known that she knows who the missing statue from the temple depicts.
As Loni tells her new American companions over dinner one night (bringing us at last to the real reason to watch Perfumed Garden), the Stunning Woman was a royal courtesan named Locharni (also Rajeshwari Sachdev), who lived about 1000 years ago. She had been raised and trained by another courtesan, Abhisarika (Gigi St. Blaque), who was a special favorite of the king, and to whom girls from all over the land came to learn the craft. When the sage Vatsyayana (Dhritiman Chatterjee) had completed the text of the Kama Sutra, he sent an acolyte named Vinaijaka (Pravesh Kumar) to Abhisarika’s palace to illustrate it— after all, a how-to book on sex isn’t going to be very useful if you have to try to figure out the details of what it recommends on the basis of unadorned text descriptions. Each night, Vinaijaka was to observe Abhisarika and her king making love, and to sketch out what they did with their bodies; these drawings would later be interpolated into Vatsyayana’s book at the appropriate places. Well, despite the inevitable and obvious awkwardness of any such union between a high-class whore in training and a wannabe monk, Vinaijaka and Locharni ended up falling in love with each other while the former was engaged on this mission. Vatsyayana was so pissed off when he found out what had become of his student at Abhisarika’s place, however, that he laid a curse on both lovers. Not only were they never to have each other in that lifetime, they were each to be reincarnated with personalities that would prevent their being together no matter how many lifetimes they waited. As you’ve probably guessed by now, Loni isn’t just (apparently) the Stunning Woman come to life, she’s also the current incarnation of Locharni, and she is of the opinion that Michael is really Vinaijaka too. But no matter how attractive he might find the Indian girl, and no matter how many bullshit psychological obstacles he and Lisa may erect in the way of their happiness together, it really is Lisa that Michael loves, and in the end, Loni/Locharni is left right where she started— waiting out the centuries.
On the plus side, Perfumed Garden’s exotic setting and totally unaugmented female cast allow it to recapture some of the feel of its European counterparts from the 70’s. The midsection of the movie, in which the main narrative is suspended while we watch Locharni’s 1000-year-old backstory (and yes, I do realize that the screenplay has her living at least 500 years too late for her to have anything at all to do with the composition of the Kama Sutra), is exactly what’s been missing from softcore porn since the advent of direct-to-video. Unfortunately, the film takes its sweet time getting there, and the scenes involving Michael and Lisa are agonizingly dull, even when they’re in bed together. I really wish Mundhra had had the nerve simply to ditch the present-day framing story, and to devote the whole of the running time to Locharni and Vinaijaka. It was 1998 when this was made, for God’s sake. Surely we as a society have progressed to the point where we don’t need the reassurance of blonde hair and white faces while partaking of smut? I mean, a beautiful body is a beautiful body, regardless of what color skin it’s wrapped in, and the simple appreciation of bodies is really what this kind of movie is all about.