Cobalt Blue Is Well-Made But Left The Reader In Me Unsatisfied

It's a beautiful film that loses itself in its overwhelming use of symbolism
Cobalt Blue Is Well-Made But Left The Reader In Me Unsatisfied

Whenever we read a book, it is inevitable that we imagine the characters in a certain way. Less so as the writer imagined them and more in our own image. Readers bring the words on the pages of a book to life inside the studios of their minds and an instant feature film is created where we are the actors, directors and cinematographers too. The same thing happened to me when I read Jerry Pinto's translation of Sachin Kundalakar's novel Cobalt Blue. I was in my second year of college and it was the first time I had read a queer love story written by an Indian writer that wasn't a blog post or a short story on a queer fanfiction website. It was a full-fledged novel, written in the nineties and translated and published as a mainstream English language novel. It introduced me to a hidden world of impossible possibilities and I saw myself in its pages. Having said all that, I would like to clarify that I don't expect the director to see what I saw as a reader.

As a queer person in India, one truly feels the dearth of representation in Indian movies, much more so in mainstream Hindi cinema. Queer men are either jokes or perverted predators, with the Fires and the Aligarhs being few and far between. The recent releases such as Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and Badhai Ho are a welcome change but do not even begin to cover the multitudinous experiences of the Indian Queer community.

Since the day I read this book, I had looked forward to its movie adaptation and was excited to see it being picked up by Netflix. Hence, it's needless to mention that I was disappointed when the release was indefinitely pushed. The movie adaptation, directed by the author himself, finally came out on 2nd April this year and I was elated, despite everything.

To put it in a sentence, Cobalt Blue is a well-made and beautifully-shot movie which loses itself in its overwhelming use of symbolism. The film is wonderfully shot by Vincenzo Condorelli. The coconut tree-lined horizons and backwaters of Kerala are well-utilised but at what cost? The book was originally set in what was obviously Maharashtra, despite the namelessness of the city. The decision to shift the movie to Kerala was inexplicable and surprising and naturally, this one decision impacted various other aspects of the movie.

The storyline is simple yet drenched in a myriad of emotions, secrets and conflicts. A mysterious young painter comes to live with a family as a paying guest and the two younger siblings, Tanay and Anuja both fall in love with him. The movie does capture the romances well but leaves something to be desired. The first half is tediously slow and painfully slathered with the colour blue. Numerous walls are painted blue, a diary is blue, Prateik Babbar's paintings have a blue tinge to them, his cycle is blue, his notebook is blue, hell, even a wooden crate is blue. Kundalkar himself adapted the book into the movie's screenplay and made a few changes, some more welcome than others. It is a challenging task to portray a romance between two men set in a homophobic, patriarchal and traditional Indian household without giving in to the urge of proving a point or changing the world. All LGBTQIA+  movies need not end with a pride parade and I am glad to say that this one does not. The film does what is expected of it without becoming preachy or breaking out into groundbreaking monologues.

Although the original book is written in Marathi and the movie has a traditional Marathi family at its centre, one rarely hears a Marathi dialogue in the whole film. Everyone is fluent in Malayalam and Hindi, with a few English dialogues scattered here and there. Tanay's Hindi dialogues feel rehearsed and are mechanically delivered, despite him writing impeccably in Hindi. As stated before, the movie has been shifted to Kerala and Kundlakar tries to integrate the socio-political aspects of this setting into the movie but the attempt is half-hearted and superficial without any callbacks whatsoever.

Neelay Mehendale tries to convey the childlike fascination of Tanay while looking like a grown man himself. His character has been given the most inane-sounding questions as dialogue, which he delivers one after another while Prateik's character frowns and ignores him. Prateik Babbar is satisfactory in his role but does not leave much of a mark except for a scene or two. Credit where credit's due, Neelay Mehendale's performance improves in the second half, once he is allowed to drop the childishness; he delivers well as a heartbroken lover who is left behind. As much as Cobalt Blue is the story of Tanay's coming of age, it is also the story of Anuja's journey to sexual awakening, taking control and breaking free in search of her dreams. Anjali Sivaraman as Anuja steals the show with her brilliant performance and effortless charm. Neil Bhoopalam as the English teacher and Poornima Indrajith as Sister Mary shine bright in their extended cameos. These characters show up only in the movie version but it seems difficult to imagine the story without them. Veteran actors Geetanjali Kulkarni as Aai and Shishir Sharma as Baba remain underutilised.

It is a delightful cinematic experience but left the reader in me dissatisfied. Look out for a beautiful portrait of Smita Patil in the background in Prateik's room and a well-placed nod to Deepa Mehta's Fire. You can watch the movie on Netflix.

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