“Cobalt Blue” is an Indian “Call Me By Your Name,” a gay lad’s sexual coming-of-age tale that shares torrid sexual encounters and a few other details from the André Aciman novel that screenwriter James Ivory turned into Oscar bait film five years back.
Yes, there’s fruit. No, it’s a not a peach this time, but a tangerine, squished until it explodes in a moment of passion.
Writer-director Sachin Kundalkar, adapting his own novel, serves up one of the steamiest Indian melodramas ever with this softcore love triangle about an aspiring poet and novelist, his tomboyish field hockey star sister and the renter who takes over an upstairs room in an upper middle class family’s house in 1991 Fort Kochi, Kerala, and takes an interest in each sibling in turn.
Tanay (Neelay Mehendale) is a college kid with dreams of literary glory. “I want to write like Chekov, Pushkin and Tolstoy” he enthuses. He speaks to the spirit of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in the family fish pond, and scribbles in notebooks about how “I want to write about Russian boys in Goa!”
Yes, he’s narcissistic and effeminate and he sets off the gaydar of his lusty literature professor (Neil Bhoopalam). But those academically-unethical thoughts take a back seat when the elders of the family die, freeing an apartment upstairs that Tanay craves. No. Dad wants to rent it out. But at least “a boy” rents it.
The unnamed hunk (Prateik Babbar) is effortlessly cool, a photographer and artist who favors a certain color that becomes Tanay’s obsession. Well, one of his obsessions.
“I need to quench my thirst with the lips of another,” Tanay swoons, and soon the unnamed stranger is teasing him along, taking him for midnight canoe rides and then just plain taking him.
Meanwhile, the family’s in a tizzy over a sibling who wants to marry but who can’t because of his cute Peppermint Patty of the Field Hockey world sister, who “must marry first.”
Environmental activist Anjura (Anjali Sivaraman) seems uninterested in boys, even the ones her family is hellbent on setting her up with. But that guy upstairs is catnip to all comers.
Kundalkar’s slow, lumbering tale of forbidden love is as obvious as a sloppy kiss between teenagers. The teacher passes on Rimbaud collections to his student, Tanay lends hapless Anjura moisturizer, the stranger’s “handsome but rude” brush off of Anjura is something she is sure to find irresistible.
And poor Tanay is aching through all this by composing what sounds like haiku.
“I walk with a pebble…in my sock. It hurts!”
“Cobalt Blue’s” sexual daring won’t startle Western viewers, who’ve seen decades of films this overt and far more explicit. And as a filmmaker, Kundalkar’s sense of pace seems borrowed from Russian novelists — the most long-winded ones. Watching this movie is like watching cobalt paint dry for long stretches.
But there’s almost certainly a difference in how this plays in the exotic East, where audiences conditioned by chaste Bollywood musicals and Indian melodramas don’t find the films nearly the patience-testing slogs they can seem to Western viewers.
The performances are interesting and never less than sexy, if a tad soap operatic. Babbar practically lathers himself right off the screen.
The very idea of an Indian homage to “Call Me By Your Name” would have seemed too hot to handle just a few years ago. So give Kundalkar credit for taking a shot at themes and situations that push the long-prudish boundaries of Indian cinema into virgin territory. Maybe next time, he’ll find a literary editor who’ll redline all the trite predictability, and a film editor who’ll speed things up a bit.
Rating: TV-MA, sex, partial nudity
Cast: Neelay Mehendale, Prateik Babbar, Anjali Sivaraman, Geetanjali Kulkarni and Neil Bhoopalam
Credits: Scripted and directed by Sachin Kundalkar, based on his novel. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:52