Films: Of science, the screen & a song
Neelay Mehendale has a brittle sense of humour. While his performance as the protagonist of Cobalt Blue, the Netflix coming-of-age film, has created a buzz, the actor reveals that he is also a scientist from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, whose PhD research centred on the role of lipids in the biological processes pertaining to immunity and brain functioning.
“I tried to understand the beneficial roles of cholesterol and ceramides during the immune process and how certain rogue lipids can be eliminated in order to protect brain cells from their damaging effects,” he says, going on to quip, “Quite simple, right?”
Three times a star
There’s nothing simple about Mehendale’s achievements. Some people expend their youth trying to locate the grand passion of their lives. But Neelay Mehendale, M.Sc., PhD, is fortunate enough to be propelled by multiple passions. The youngster is also a talented Hindustani classical vocalist whose YouTube performances showcase him singing different ragas.
His multi-disciplinary career now also includes a finely calibrated performance in Cobalt Blue. In his acting debut, Mehendale played a college student, Tanay, struggling with his sexuality; his relationship with the family’s enigmatic paying guest, a professional painter played by Prateik Babbar, leads to a sexual awakening and eventual heartbreak but also unleashes his creative energies. The actor effectively portrays both the character’s naiveté as well as his manic despair upon discovering his lover’s casual cruelty. Which begs the question: How did a scientist-musician venture into acting?
“I had never given any thought to acting. Science and music both require a lot of dedication, so there is always plenty for me to be engaged with,” reveals Mehendale. “However, when I was approached by the Cobalt Blue team to audition for the role of Tanay, I decided opportunities like these seldom come one’s way. I did my homework, auditioned, and landed the role. I never shy away from a challenge.”
Had he been a conventional film aspirant, perhaps playing a homosexual man might have given him pause, even at a time when successful actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao have played LGBTQI+ characters on-screen. But Mehendale believes the fear that playing a gay man could affect an actor’s career is no longer valid. He says firmly, “Telling a story authentically is what’s important to an actor. Regardless of who the character is, the actor’s ability to make him believable makes him memorable for the audience.”
Cracking the code
The film didn’t believe in half measures either. Cobalt Blue has an unapologetically bold love scene between Mehendale and Babbar. Asked if he was apprehensive about the semi-nude scenes and whether there were clearly established boundaries, the actor says, “Definitely, there were discussions. It’s a professional practice to have these conversations. Being fairly new to the world of acting, I needed guidance. There were training sessions for some of the scenes and that certainly made things easier.”
Fortunately for Mehendale, his co-actor Babbar was very supportive. “He is like an older brother who watched out for me,” the younger actor says. “I became very good friends with every cast and crew member.”
Mehendale insists there is no significant other in his life when prodded about the reactions to the lovemaking scene. But he analyses matters of the heart with perspicacity and explains his Cobalt Blue character’s fascination for the unnamed painter with: “There’s a sense of mysticism with the painter, and everyone likes a puzzle.”
Hmm... so is an enigma what he looks for in a partner? With a laugh, he sidesteps: “About my partner? I am getting more and more certain that that’s also a puzzle! I’ll let you know when I know.”
How to build passion
The idea that great suffering can lead to great art and the variegated forms of art are constants throughout Mehendale’s debut—Tanay is a poet-writer who has an imaginary friend in a turtle named Neruda, Babbar plays a painter and Tanay’s college professor loves literature. The debutant actor believes that there is a commonality among those with a creative mindset which helped him understand this milieu. He says, “The similitude between all arts and science is inspiration and creativity. So, being a scientist and a musician certainly helped me as an actor.”
In particular, Mehendale is pleased with the film’s message. He says earnestly, “It’s important to make the contemporary audience aware about the different shades of queer lives and this film does it very sensitively.” While homosexuality was a criminal act in the 1990s—the period the movie is set in—Mehendale points out that, “In 2022, people are having healthy discussions about the topic. That shows that progress has happened. I’d consider that a step in the right direction.”
Fuelled by the response to his debut film, Mehendale is now ready to take on more acting assignments, confident of juggling the three passions in his life without dropping the ball. Mehendale explains, “My music and science have always supported each other, I apply principles of music to science and vice versa; thus one enriches the other. Now this also extends to acting. Music and science are my two strong pillars of support. I’m hoping that this newly added third pillar of acting will help me be even stronger.”
From HT Brunch, May 28, 2022
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