During filming in India, the name of the project was not revealed to government officials who would have denied the petition to film in India had it been called "Kama Sutra." Instead, it was called "Maya & Tara." Since government officials made many periodic visits to the set to ensure 'proper Indian film etiquette' — as is true with all films made in India — the cast had to improvise fake scenes which avoided the nudity and sexuality central to the story. Upon completion, authorities screened the film and it was subsequently banned in India because of the erotic scenes that contained heterosexual as well as homosexual elements (the lesbianism was depicted in an explicit scene, whereas the male homosexuality was more implied).
Set in 16th century India, the movie depicts the story of two girls, Maya and Tara, who were raised together even though they come from different social classes. Tara (Sarita Choudhury) is an upper-caste princess while Maya (Indira Varma) is her beautiful servant. The two girls are best of friends and have been treated the same, until they get old enough for marriage. At this point Tara is treated as a future princess being readied to marry Prince Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews) but Maya is forced into the role of her servant, which culminates into an argument where Tara reminds Maya of her lowly position in life. Being resentful of the inferiority she is made to feel, Maya exacts her revenge by sleeping with Prince Raj on the wedding night. Prince Raj himself is delighted with the opportunity since he is an opium smoking playboy who loves sex, drinks, and nearly naked gladiator type fights. When Maya's actions are discovered by Tara's brother, he develops an intense amount of lust for her. When she refuses him, he brands her as a whore, and she is banished from her house.
Maya is forced to wander around on her own. She eventually meets many free-spirited people, including an older sensuous woman named Rasa Devi (Rekha) who is a teacher of the Kama Sutra, the ancient art of seduction that takes into account dancing, singing, costumes, as well as the art of making love. While a student there, Maya also meets a young stone sculptor named Jai Kumar (Ramon Tikaram) and the two begin a romantic relationship until one day Raj, now the king, shows up wanting to commission some statues for his pleasure. He immediately recognizes that some of the statues look just like the only woman he now desires, the outcast Maya, setting up a gladiator type contest between the two men. What culminates is an intensely homoerotic 'friendly' competition in which the two, nearly naked, grapple and dance in a male-bonding wrestling match without the intention of hurting each other. Even so, Kumar wisely allows King Raj to beat him and in doing so he receives many favors and gold, but he loses the right to see Maya. On top of that, King Raj is descending deeper into debauchery and opium delirium with no interest or inclination of bedding his own Queen, even for the sake of procreation. However, the blame for the lack of an heir is not placed on the King. Instead, it is Queen Tara who is scorned for not being able to seduce her own husband.
Maya finally realizes that she must make difficult choices as she finds herself in the position to either accept her role as concubine to King Raj or to help the people she loves who are all headed down towards their own paths of destruction, all because of Maya's presence in their lives.