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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  When Mother Theresa died the other week, the headlines were full of phrases like "Saint of the gutters," "poor and suffering," "sick and dying." Nothing wrong with that—those were the people she helped, after all—but it reinforced the impressions most Americans have of India. We know the world's second-most-populous country mostly as a crowded, dirty, impoverished place, the home of ghettos and religious warfare.

What we tend to forget is that it also has an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage, a legacy of philosophy, art, and science (not to mention food) that has shaped world history. In recent decades, some "westernized" Indians have started trying to make sense of their culture for themselves and the rest of us. Salman Rushdie is one. Another is director Mira Nair, whose films try to reconcile India's past and present, its stunning heights and gloomy depths.

Nair's latest movie, just out on video, is actually her weakest to date, but it will probably also be her most popular, because it happens to be called Kama Sutra (1996, NR). And yes, there are plenty of sweaty, intertwined limbs on display, although anyone who rents it just for the steamy scenes will probably be disappointed. Set in 16th-century India (but, interestingly, made in English), it's a feminist soap opera about a courtesan, a princess, a debauched king, and a sensitive artist. The film is by turns sexy, philosophical, and preposterous, as Nair tries to connect New Age-y dictates about love and respect with the ancient text of the title. The story falters from time to time, but Nair's sumptuous visuals don't. Call it a date movie for sensitive '90s couples.

Nair's earlier film, Mississippi Masala (1992, R), is an even better date movie, with Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury starring in a subtle cross-cultural romance about Indian immigrants in the American South. The film is maybe too ambitious—Nair has a tendency to shoot for three or four big themes when one or two would do—but Washington and Choudhury are charming individually and electric together.

Both movies are worlds away from Nair's debut, Salaam Bombay! (1988), a gritty Oscar-nominated portrait of Indian street kids. It's an unblinking exploration of a world of drug abuse, child prostitution, and harsh urban Darwinism. It offers little hope, but, like all of Nair's films, much compassion.

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