Late last year, Netflix India released the trailer of ‘Cobalt Blue’, a film adaptation of the eponymous novel, written and directed by Sachin Kundalkar. Expectations ran high, with good reason. The movie, which released on Saturday starred Prateik Babbar as the unnamed paying guest, Neelay Mehendale as Tanay, and Anjali Sivaraman as Anuja. The fact Kundalkar, two-time National Film Award winner and the man behind the story, would be translating his words onto the celluloid was also a source of comfort.
As with every adaptation, Cobalt Blue too will face the ultimate question: does the movie live up to the book? Interestingly enough, the movie sets the stage for the debate in a scene, where the characters discuss novels and plays that have been adapted. It is fair to say that the movie is able to address important moments in the book, but also leaves behind some other significant plotlines.
The crux of the movie remains the same. As in Kundalkar’s book, the plot of the movie is a riveting tale about two siblings who fell in love with the same man. In the span of a few hundred pages, (or in the case of the movie, 1h 52m) Kundalkar explores the politics of gender, sexual identity and family. The concepts of sexuality, desire, the pain of heartbreak and loss feature prominently in the book. The movie, in fact, begins with death, the most universal kind of loss there is. However, the emotions that run during the scenes of the loss is heavily contrasted with the agony the two characters deal with during a heartbreak. While the siblings try to stake claim over the room, which goes on to take the centerstage in the movie, after the death, they both leave their homes behind after the heartbreak.
To set the context, the movie takes place in 1996 in Fort Kochi, a choice I am still not sure of. It lends to the aesthetics, with green ponds and lakes, spice warehouses that have been converted into art galleries, and houses overlooking the water. However, outside of this, it does not add to the plotline in any interesting or important way. Except, maybe, it plays a role in the loneliness that Tanay experiences. The idea comes later on, when Tanay’s college professor (Neil Bhoopalam) tells him that he was craving from companionship, because he was finding it impossible to find friendship in Kochi, much less sex. However, is that a predicament of a gay man in Kochi, or an outsider in Kochi, or just the lived experience of a gay person in the 90s India?
The only logical conclusion I could come up was that the movie was trying to recreate the aesthetic sensibilities of Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar winning Call Me By Your Name. By setting the movie in Kerala they are able to replicate the scene of a house guest arriving in a idyllic coastal town to make space for himself in a family house.
Tanay’s gaze throughout the movie raises a certain level of discomfort because it seems charged with sexual desire, be it with strangers playing football on the streets, the barber, his professor and even the star of the plotline, the paying guest. Well, the heavy sexualization is made easy with Vincenzo Condorelli’s camera lens as it is with the fact that the character for some reason is constantly shirtless.
The movie does get it right in a lot of places. The scenes of Tanay and the unnamed guest’s physical and emotional intimacy is captured tastefully. Interspersed with scenes of nature and hands gripping each other, they also manage to show the bodies of men intertwined and writhing with pleasure. In a particular scene, once again reminiscent of Call Me By Your Name, a character crushes an orange in a moment of climax.
The paying guest then elopes with Tanay’s sister, Anuja. Now, up until the point of this elopement, Anuja has maybe two or three interactions with him. Their first interaction is extremely odd. The unnamed guest picks up a bra and asks some girls who lives in the neighbouring house if it belongs to them. Embarrassed, the run inside, and the character takes this as a cue to swing the bra around his hand, which in all honesty is an absolutely odd thing to do. Anuja, who meets him for the first time, snatches it from him and scolds him.
The next few interactions are also of annoyance. Now, the lack of interaction is not surprising, because this is exactly how it plays out in the book as well. However, what the book does, and the movie fails to, is fill in the gap. Kundalkar’s novel is divided into two halves. In the second half of the novel we are able to understand Anuja’s side of the story. We are given insight into how the relationship blooms, as we are into Anuja’s mental status. In the movie, Dr. Khanwilkar, Anuja’s therapist, does not exist. Instead, we are given Mary, a nun and confidant of Anuja. You can’t wonder if the choice of a nun was because the movie is set in Kerala. Mary has a past, we are not entirely privy to, but it is this past, where she was forced to become a nun, is what drives her to help Anuja.
The movie does not do much justice to Anuja’s story. Her entire relationship is summed up in a few scenes and dialogues. The most prominent one being when her father tries to convince her to file rape charges against and him and she refuses. “He introduced me to my own body,” she tells her father and reminds him that he was the reason why she felt like she had to run away. After Anuja returns home, the family begins taming the shew. Hair extensions are clipped on and she is forced to drape a sari, and she is left almost unrecognizable. Throughout the movie she is depicted as a tomboy, who does not subscribe to the ideas of femineity. And the movie makes a rather forced attempt to depict this. For example, Tanay uses Ponds, which is describes as “girl’s cream” and is okay with spending time in the kitchen. When their mother asks Anuja to help, she declares that she is not going to do any work around the kitchen. Later, she asks Tanay to show her how to use cream and deodorant, which seems to be pushing the trope a little too far.
The silent grief and isolation of Tanay versus the public affair that is Anuja’s heartbreak, is poignant. The politics of family and gender is rife here. Tanay is constantly shown as treading the waters and as trying to engage in sexual activities in public spaces. Tanay enjoys free access to the guest’s room and no one raises their eyes about the fact that they spend so much day and time together. Anuja, on the other hand, is constantly shown as begging to see his room but she is constantly forbidden. Their love story would have had to bloom in spaces outside the house.
“Love is a habit. The habit ends, you die”, Tanay offers as an explanation to Anuja when she uses why the grandmother died on the same day as her abusive husband. In some sense, this serves as an foreboding to what is to come. The departure of the paying guest pushes them to assert their own needs and shed the shackles that were holding them back; in a way, their old selves die.
However, the movie ends a little too neatly. Sure, there are questions about the painter who disappeared overnight. But, in the novel his nature and past is acknowledged in a way where we understand his need to leave. The memories of the siblings alone make it clear that the departure was inevitable. However, the movie does not achieve this. Tanay becomes a writer and Anuja leaves to become a hockey coach and we assume she will thrive and survive. In a ditch effort to hurt her, Tanay, who comes across a petulant child more often than not, makes her aware of his relationship with the man. For this and many other reasons, unlike in the book, I found myself rooting for Anuja.
Surprisingly, Kundalkar is not given director’s credit in the film. In fact, director’s credit does not appear in the fil. However, he is given credits as the author for story and for writing the screenplay and dialogues. But, his choice to distance himself from the movie raises more questions. Maybe, the parts that don’t sit well were parts that he wanted to distance himself from. But, that will remain yet another unanswered question that the movie brings up.