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Netflix India’s ‘Cobalt Blue’ Shows Queer Love—in Primary Colors


When director Deepa Mehta’s film Fire first hit theaters across India in 1998, it awakened the ire of the country’s right-wing fundamentalists, triggering violent protests. Fire details a romance that blossoms between two women who are held captive in oppressive marriages to men. Its spotlight on queer, female desire was an artistic risk in an era when the country still criminalized gay and lesbian sex under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which had been in place since 1861. It would take the Indian Supreme Court two more decades after Fire’s release to declare Section 377 unconstitutional.

How appropriate, then, that the poster for Mehta’s landmark film flashes across the screen late in Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue, a movie released by Netflix India in April that follows a brother and sister who are unknowingly romanced by the same man. That frame, in which the male protagonist, Tanay (Neelay Mehendale), drives past a wall crowded with advertisements for Mehta’s film, is a sly nod to the cinematic tradition that Kundalkar is working in: Like Fire, Cobalt Blue is a mainstream Indian film that dares to center queer lives.

The shot is, regrettably, among the lighter touches in Cobalt Blue, a film that otherwise strains to convey the passion and anguish of its principal characters with clarity. The film, adapted from Kundalkar’s own 2006 Marathi-language novel by the same name (translated into English in 2013 by Jerry Pinto), was originally slated for release by Netflix last December, only for the company to postpone it with little explanation. Around the time of the film’s eventual appearance on Netflix this April, the newspaper Mid-Day reported that Kundalkar had been accused of sexual misconduct by a crew member after production had wrapped, resulting in the corporation stripping him of his director credit.

When director Deepa Mehta’s film Fire first hit theaters across India in 1998, it awakened the ire of the country’s right-wing fundamentalists, triggering violent protests. Fire details a romance that blossoms between two women who are held captive in oppressive marriages to men. Its spotlight on queer, female desire was an artistic risk in an era when the country still criminalized gay and lesbian sex under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which had been in place since 1861. It would take the Indian Supreme Court two more decades after Fire’s release to declare Section 377 unconstitutional.

How appropriate, then, that the poster for Mehta’s landmark film flashes across the screen late in Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue, a movie released by Netflix India in April that follows a brother and sister who are unknowingly romanced by the same man. That frame, in which the male protagonist, Tanay (Neelay Mehendale), drives past a wall crowded with advertisements for Mehta’s film, is a sly nod to the cinematic tradition that Kundalkar is working in: Like Fire, Cobalt Blue is a mainstream Indian film that dares to center queer lives.

The shot is, regrettably, among the lighter touches in Cobalt Blue, a film that otherwise strains to convey the passion and anguish of its principal characters with clarity. The film, adapted from Kundalkar’s own 2006 Marathi-language novel by the same name (translated into English in 2013 by Jerry Pinto), was originally slated for release by Netflix last December, only for the company to postpone it with little explanation. Around the time of the film’s eventual appearance on Netflix this April, the newspaper Mid-Day reported that Kundalkar had been accused of sexual misconduct by a crew member after production had wrapped, resulting in the corporation stripping him of his director credit.

Kundalkar’s directorial choices are ultimately the film’s undoing: He leans so heavily on such elements as voiceovers and often mundane symbolic imagery, along with the handsome cinematography of Vincenzo Condorelli, that he loses sight of his story’s soul.

The film—which is mostly in Hindi with occasional dialogue in English and Malayalam—opens in Fort Kochi, Kerala, the state on the southwestern tip of India. It is 1996, and Tanay is a college-going aspiring writer who devours the music of Michael Jackson. His sweet-tempered, effete mien is unlike that of his hockey-playing sister Anuja (Anjali Sivaraman), who’s around the same age. They are raised by a pair of strict Brahmin parents from the state of Maharashtra, but neither Tanay nor Anuja wants to conform to the rigid rules of the gender-normative culture to which they belong. In one early sequence, their mother (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni) is puzzled when she finds a cream marketed for girls in Tanay’s bedroom. Anuja, meanwhile, lets the hair beneath her armpits grow with abandon, while she proudly declares that she’s unaware of the difference between salt and sugar, even if custom might dictate that a woman like her grasp such fundamentals of domestic life.

An unnamed paying guest (Prateik Babbar), presumably not much older than Tanay and Anuja, soon ruptures this family dynamic when he takes an unoccupied room in the family’s house. Babbar’s character, with his sculpted physique, embodies an orthodox ideal of masculinity, and Tanay’s pull to him is instant. The two grow close and eventually consummate their shared affection in secret. The sex scenes between the men thrum with heat, and Babbar is convincing in the role of a man whose main attraction is the mystery that surrounds him, managing to make his character’s emotional inscrutability compelling. 

But once Babbar disappears from the narrative around the film’s midpoint, Cobalt Blue collapses. Anuja runs away with him; the two, it turns out, have had a romantic entanglement of their own, unbeknownst to Tanay prior to that point. The development causes understandable pain for Tanay, his confusion compounded when Anuja returns alone and the two realize that they’ve both been involved with this stranger.

The siblings start to fear that their confining existence in Kochi might be all that life has to offer, and it is here that the film’s weaknesses become more glaring. Tanay sees a glimpse of his potentially grim future in his literature teacher (played by Neil Bhoopalam), a gay man nursing a fierce, predatory crush on Tanay. “You and I are criminals in this country,” the professor tells Tanay, describing how he endured electroshock therapy in a bid to “cure” him of his homosexuality. 

Anuja, for her part, is relegated to house arrest, complying when her family outfits her in a sari and covers her cropped hair in a wig with a long braid slung over her shoulder. Among her sole confidants is a nun (played by Poornima Indrajith). She warns that she, too, was once just like Anuja, a rebel who disregarded social pieties before her impulses got tamed into submission. 

The stories of these two supporting figures feel more finely etched than those of Tanay and Anuja. Indrajith and Bhoopalam are skilled performers who are able to suggest lifetimes of tyranny through minimal dialogue. The two leads, by contrast, don’t possess the gravitas that would give the plight of their respective characters sufficient urgency.


Anuja (Anjali Sivaraman) in scene from the 2022 Indian film ‘Cobalt Blue.’

Anuja (Anjali Sivaraman) in a scene from “Cobalt Blue.” NETFLIX

But the blame isn’t squarely on the film’s main actors, for Kundalkar squelches any possible power of their work with his aesthetic decisions. He overrelies on voiceovers involving Tanay reading his angst-drenched poetry, as if Kundalkar doesn’t trust his audience to comprehend the story’s subtext. That lush shade in the film’s title, too, saturates numerous scenes: One will spot cobalt blue notebooks, a cobalt blue smear of paint lining Tanay’s neck, cobalt blue on the walls of the room where the tenant used to reside. These shots, abstract to a fault, reveal less about the texture of Tanay’s emotional world than Kundalkar may have intended. 

Kundalkar even indulges in his lazier tendencies as a filmmaker during what should be the film’s most propulsive segment, in which Tanay and Anuja actualize their dreams of escaping. As the story marches to its tidy denouement, Kundalkar struggles to locate the film’s beating heart.

The temptation to applaud Cobalt Blue’s queer representation—and thus downplay its unfortunate artistic missteps—might be strong. A cursory look at the Indian streaming landscape broadly might suggest there’s ample room for queer-driven stories: Netflix India has distributed Loev (2015), a romance between two queer men; the male protagonist of Amazon Prime Video’s 2019 Indian miniseries Made in Heaven is gay; and a major plot point in the second season of the same company’s Four More Shots Please!, released in 2020 and billed as India’s answer to Sex and the City, revolves around a planned wedding between two women. 

But some skepticism might be worthwhile here: Consider, as a counterexample to such titles, the fate of the aforementioned filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy (2020), a coming-of-age tale about a young, gay Sri Lankan man. Netflix, which holds international distribution rights for the title, hasn’t released the film in India as of writing for reasons the streamer has reportedly been opaque about. Some, like the veteran film critic Subhash K. Jha, have speculated that Funny Boy’s release limbo in India is due to the film’s thematic content: It puts a queer character at its fore.

Indeed, though India’s Supreme Court overturned Section 377 four years ago, the fight for acceptance of queer lives continues. Same-sex marriage awaits legalization in the country: Last year, the Indian government declared that the striking down of Section 377 “neither intended to, nor did in fact, legitimise the human conduct in question,” instead explaining that the move had simply decriminalized “a particular human behaviour.” Implicit in this wording is the notion that queer sex goes against an established social order in the eyes of the Indian state despite the Supreme Court’s 2018 proclamation that Section 377 “results in discrimination and is violative of constitutional principles.” And ​​marriage is just one frontier. As the author R. Raj Rao wrote in an essay for the Indian magazine the Caravan last year, queer Indians still weather persecution from their families, with women at times subject to what’s known as “corrective rape” at the hands of men to whom they’re forcibly married. The court’s verdict on Section 377, in other words, does not obliterate the stigma, harm, and violence that the country’s queer community routinely faces.

To audiences outside of India, Cobalt Blue’s release may thus seem welcome in such a landscape. One wishes, then, that Kundalkar hadn’t chosen to bury the story’s pulse beneath aesthetic flourishes that come across as so timid. “​​Kiss each other like you did all summer,” a forlorn Tanay drably mutters in one scene near the film’s end, reading one of his poems in a voiceover. “But never make plans with your lover.” Tanay’s heartbreak should pierce and sting here, but his distress barely registers. 

In such moments, Kundalkar seems to lack the imagination to illuminate the interior lives of his queer characters. It is unfair to burden one small-scale film with the task of representing an entire community during a pivotal moment for the queer struggle, or to judge Cobalt Blue against everything it isn’t trying to accomplish. But even on its modest scale, the film feels like a wan contribution to mainstream Indian cinema on queer lives. In reaching for lyrical heights, Kundalkar obscures the very message many in the audience may still need to hear: that queer love can be as joyous, agonizing, and complicated as any other.



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