The film Cobalt Blue had a quiet release on Netflix on April 2, 2022, after a delayed December 2021 date. Based on the 2006 Marathi book of the same name by Sachin Kundalkar and written and directed by him, the film is yet another intimate take on relationships that one is accustomed to seeing in the writer-director's work. It has signature beautiful visuals, too. Vincenzo Condorelli's cinematography works wonders, even if you are watching the film on a smartphone screen.
In fact, Cobalt Blue plays on all the senses, visually beautiful and in music and sound, too, whether it's the locales or the sets, the close-ups of daily household chores, or food, the costumes, or the actor's faces and (sometimes nude) bodies. Cobalt Blue is a very intimate take on a queer relationship in the 1980-90s India, of an upper-caste Maharashtrian family who are living in Kerala and adjusting to life there. The film takes you in, right from the word go. Is it like the 2017 Oscar Award-winning Call Me By Your Name? Let's find out.
Story And Theme
The story is primarily of Tanay Joshi, played by an affable Neelay Mehendale, a young college-going queer boy who is coming to terms with his sexuality. His older brother (Aseem "Fullshirt", played by Anant Joshi) and father (Shishir Sharma), as well as the mother (Geetanjali Kulkarni) are, of course, leading a life defined by heteronormativity. Tanay's sister Anuja (Anjali Sivaraman) could be the closest to understanding him if he ever came out, for she is shown to shun normal female dress code and behaviour. A hockey player who wants to be independent, Anuja, however, is not queer.
Tanay and Anuja, both young and not having experienced love, fall for the same guy (an unnamed Prateik Babbar) who comes in to inhabit their house as a paying guest. They are unaware of the other's fixation with this artistic love interest. Therefore, heartbreak follows, followed by growing up.
Portrayal Of Male Gaze Towards Another Male And Queer Love
India now has countless web series on the queer theme, or most have an LGBTQ angle these days. But most are not handled sensitively, or something is missing. In Cobalt Blue, the makers explore the (curious and loving) male gaze towards another male beautifully. Just through shots and suggestions, one understands what the character must be feeling. It is not in-your-face like in a man-woman story. The cinematic or camera gaze also feels restricted just like the feeling of forbidden love, and it works wonderfully in Cobalt Blue.
The difficulties of the expression of queer love before the 2000s have been depicted in interactions like that of Tanay with his professor (Neil Bhoopalam). They have some heartbreaking scenes together, with one where the prof warns Tanay of how ultimately women take away all the men they have loved - and that it happens again and again.
Is Cobalt Blue India's Call Me By Your Name?
Cobalt Blue is similar to Call Me By Your Name, the now cult film that is also based on a book. However, it must be noted that though the Hollywood movie released in 2017 and the novel in 2007, Sachin Kundalkar's novel Cobalt Blue released in 2006 in Marathi, while its English version released in 2013. So, if anything, it should be said that Call Me By Your Name is based on Cobalt Blue!
Having said that, Cobalt Blue does have a similar setting of a young boy falling for an older man who is a guest in his home, as well as some similar visuals - like the fruit used sensually, and the bicycle, the arty setting, the song (by Mikey McCleary in Cobalt Blue and by Sufjian Stevens in Call Me By Your Name). Both Cobalt Blue and Call Me By Your Name are part of highly artistic cinema.
The use of the colour blue in the film - in this case cobalt blue - would also remind you of the theme of Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), the film that for the first time in the history of Cannes Film Festival won the Palme d'Or for its director as well as two lead actresses (Abdellatif Kechiche, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos). But the similarity ends with the colour theme.
Neelay Mehendale, not an actor but a scientist with a PhD, correctly depicts an innocent Tanay who is wanting to explore himself and "get out of the pond" like his tortoise friend Pablo. Neelay is a find!
Prateik Babbar has already mastered such acts and fits the bill. (Just FYI, in one scene where his portraits and paintings are displayed, his mother and the iconic actress Smita Patil's black and white portrait is displayed. Adds to the charm.)
Veterans Geetanjali Kulkarni and Shishir Sharma shine. Anant Joshi has a presence although short one. Anjali Sivaraman portrays the young bud sister decently, a tomboy on the verge of womanhood. Poornima Indrajith as the nun who helps Anuja portrays her part well but her character had more scope for more screen time and depth. Maybe in the book it was more well etched out. Overall, the casting by Nandini Shrikent works well.
Although it is a poetic film, Cobalt Blue depicts some everyday things without much pomp. Like one scene where Anuja (a Hindu) rides pillion on a mobike along with a Christian nun and a female Muslim friend. Such subtle depictions of friendship between religions are important in today's volatile times in India.
The film will be a treat for those who grew up in the era it is set in. No mobilephones, no Internet, but a Walkman and cassettes, a Polaroid camera, music and cinema, and a simpler life more connected to friends and family. Also, the way Anuja asks for a handshake and squeezes the palm tight, reminds one of those days.
Cobalt Blue is an important queer film. Like Kundalkar's earlier films, and his most recent - Pondicherry - Cobalt Blue is also a wonderful tale of relationships. A coming-of-age saga is never without heartbreak and so it goes. But the film works lyrically and is not so much about what will happen next but the feeling of love itself - forbidden love. And what eventually happens when the characters indulge in it. Cobalt Blue feels like a beautiful painting.
We will go with 4 / 5 stars for Cobalt Blue.
Photos: Stills, and YouTube screenshots from Netflix trailer of Cobalt Blue.