In an extremely poignant and tender moment, a closeted Professor tells his heartbroken gay student, “Women take away every man you love.” The protagonist looks at his Professor forlornly, reminiscing the brutal, earth-shattering emptiness he feels in his heart as he grapples with his forbidden homoerotic desires in the 1980s and 90s India where homosexuality is taboo. Directed by Sachin Kundalkar, the author of the eponymous Marathi novel, Cobalt Blue is a daring and delicate queer love story that, however, misses the mark, and we will explore why.
Much like Cobalt Blue, Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, focused on a sweltering love affair amidst two men who are eventually separated by both physical and emotional distance. While Cobalt Blue rivals the picturesque setting of the Italian summers in the film and tries to point out the same metaphors and symbolism, it falls short in terms of narrative structure and coherence. While Kundalkar’s book is way more intimate and portrays an empathetic story of the protagonist who is grappling with an identity crisis in an inherently heteronormative Savarna household, the film feels a bit rushed in its portrayal of the melancholy bitterness.
A closer comparison to Cobalt Blue would probably be Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai’s coming-of-age novel Funny Boy. Much like the Funny Boy protagonist Arjie, the Cobalt Blue protagonist Tanay grows up in a close-knit family, undergoing sexual awakening for quite some time. He is closest to his hockey-playing, gender norm-subverting sister, who is, however, not queer, and will probably not relate to his anxieties. As luck would have had it, the siblings fall for the same man who is a paying guest in their household and feel the pangs of love, heartbreak, yearning and adulthood.
As Tanay, Neelay Mehendale delivers a sensitive and pure performance which makes his vulnerabilities as a queer man in a conservative Indian society palpable. Prateik Babbar as the object of both Tanay and his sister Anuja’s affection does a great job in his limited character scope. Had the writers been more lenient and indulged in giving Babbar’s character more freedom like Hammer’s in Call Me By Your Name, Cobalt Blue, too, could have become a queer cult classic in recent times on Netflix India.
While the cinematography is visually appealing and the filmmaker deftly uses colour to convey emotions, the narrative feels pretty forced. The hour-long prospect seems more tedious than Karishma Dube’s lesbian short film Devi Goddess which dealt with a queer love story in an Indian household, conveying more empathy and emotions in less than 20 minutes. While the filmmaker tries hard to subvert the homosexual male gaze and focus more on love, friendship and hatred, he fails to establish a link among these elements to make the story more moving and relevant.
Kundalkar’s film is set in a time when Deepa Mehta’s film Fire was met with vehement country-wide protests due to the inclusion of lesbianism. While Indian films have had quite a few homosexual narratives since then, very few successful mainstream films have managed to nail the representation of the queer community. Even Cobalt Blue had a relatively quiet release on Netflix India albeit for other reasons that include sexual abuse allegations against Kundalkar, thus leading to the subsequent removal of the filmmaker from the project following its release.
While the film explores sexual awakening, identity crisis and questioning the imposed heteronormativity pretty well, it seems like a wannabe Indian remake of Call Me By Your Name where certain characters take over while Tanay plays Chalamet’s Elio and Babbar’s character plays Hammer’s Oliver, Tanay’s professor, portrayed spectacularly by Neil Bhoopalam in his limited screen presence, takes over Elio’s father’s role. Perhaps, a more original and local approach to the subject could have resulted in a story that would resonate more. While our hearts break for Tanay, we fail to empathise with him as much as we do with Selvadurai’s Arjie who is battling his own self amidst rising sociopolitical tension.
Indian filmmakers have years of unlearning to do in terms of heteronormativity and misinformation regarding queer culture and community. Only then can films like Cobalt Blue truly be polarising and touching instead of being mere outlets for hidden eros and forbidden passion between a gay couple.
Watch Cobalt Blue on Netflix.