It is entirely conceivable that you go scene by scene through Cobalt Blue, pencil behind the ear, and keep pointing at the screen, "That's pretentious." We don't have characters here, we have catalysts and the catalyzed, people who speak like they are waiting to be quoted, poetry as flat as they come. A singsong stillness. Take this line, "Usne mujhe mere khud ke shareer ki pehchaan karwa di."
The stain that love leaves — unlike the perishable hickeys — is a permanent cobalt blue streak on the neck of the fish-eyed Tanay (Neelay Mehendale). A college student, he is smitten by the paying guest (Prateik Babbar) who isn't given a name, isn't even given a personality; we are told he is a mercurial, flaky, gifted artist, and the film is indifferent to him as a character and us as a discerning audience buying into this stereotype, a cold shoulder treatment where he stirs the pot and leaves the plot.
When André Breton had said, "Beauty will be convulsive or not at all," he was looking askance at films like Cobalt Blue which are so curated, so bordered and preserved, you look at it like an artifact.
One morning Tanay wakes up to find that this paying guest, with whom he was pursuing love and lust, has eloped with his sister, the butch-cut Anuja (Anjali Sivaraman) with a spine permanently hunched from playing hockey. His life is turned on its head. Had love blinded him so much that he could not see his lover pursuing an affair with his sister under his own nose?
It is also entirely conceivable that you go scene by scene through Cobalt Blue, drool leaving the edge of your mouth, and keep pointing at the screen, "That's beautiful." Shot by Vincenzo Condorelli and colour corrected by Sidharth Meer (Bridge Postworks), the area around Kochi Fort is shot with an appetite for curated beauty, with the bursts of colour. Even the way the silhouette of characters are lit — the wet underbelly of the upper lip, the edge of the nose, the curve of the chin — or the patch of skin that glows dusty golden under the selective sun or the way Tanay holds onto a peeled orange to squeeze it in the thrusting pain of penetration, or the scrub so saturated with cobalt blue paint that when he steps on it, it squelches colour, as though bleeding blue. There is a food stylist, an intimacy coordinator, and a Cigarettes After Sex song. Beethoven's melancholic musical pool, the 'Moonlight Sonata' bookends the story. There's so much sensual touch. Breathing in each other's scents — a lover's out of seething, a mother's out of yearning.
But is careful beauty enough? When André Breton had said, "Beauty will be convulsive or not at all," he was looking askance at films like Cobalt Blue which are so curated, so bordered and preserved, you look at it like an artifact.
Geetanjali Kulkarni and Shishir Sharma, play the parents, and Neil Bhoopalam plays Tanay's professor — again given neither the grace of a name or a character — with whom he has an illicit, uncomfortable, ultimately airbrushed relationship. Who are these people who insist on giving and receiving sex — what Tanay's father calls, rather dramatically, 'bhookh' or hunger — like it were a product in a marketplace, part of a larger transaction, a give and take?
The namesake book the film is based on — first written in Marathi by Sachin Kundalkar and translated by Jerry Pinto — is a bit of a queer cannon. I found it on bedsides of and in conversations with gay friends. It has neither the piercing honesty of Call My By Your Name, the erotic ambush of What Belongs To You, or the philosophic weight of Giovanni's Room. A strangely empty novel, one that makes you question if a mysterious character is the result of lazy writing or myopic storytelling, a confusion that is compounded by Prateik Babbar's acting — is this bad acting or bad writing? ("I had only met men like you in novels, men who lived their own idiosyncrasies.")
For one, the novel felt untranslatable, not willing to be adapted. It changes perspectives — the first half is Tanmay's direct address to his now-missing lover, and the second half is Anuja's diary entries — and moves seamlessly between timelines, one paragraph in the past, the next in the present, as though its characters are unable to make the distinction between what was and what is, feeling lost in the vacuum. The movie irons out the timelines and axes the multiple perspectives, giving us only the world that Tanay sees, imagines, and wetly dreams. The ether-like quality of the prose is stamped away. For the most part, however, the book is a mere guide for the movie — the details, the location, the drama have all been twisted.
Though Sachin Kundalkar has also written and directed this film, his name is missing from the director credit — now an "open air films production" — perhaps related to the film's untimely, sudden and unexplained postponement on the day of its initial release in December 2021. His stamp — the blazing, erotic, visual brilliance uninterested in storytelling or world building — is, however, visible.
So, the writing is sloppy. Anyone reading a draft of the script could have pointed out the missing links between central events. In one scene Anuja applies for a position we did not know she wanted, to escape the house. The next scene, she gets it. In one scene we get Tanay's letter of acceptance to a writing program, one we did not even know he applied for. The next scene, he leaves. Characters are written as if love is the only thing of importance to have happened in their lives, the only thing worth simmering over. The rest is rag-tag poetry. Tanay's bag is stolen on the train. He steals food from a farmer. He sits by a tree. He writes a novel. It is published.
But instead of these gripes, I leave the film, and you, with an image — one I suspect will stay long. The paying guest's room in the first floor is being washed clean, scrubbed off of his presence, and the water, mixed with thick patches of cobalt blue on the floor creates a deep, bright blue waterfall as it cascades down the steps of the house in the afternoon light. There is a voice over, some dialogue, some poetry about love, heartbreak, meaning, life, etc. The words suck the magic out of the moment, so you go back, mute the scene, watch it again. The flood of cobalt blue.