In 1994, Delhi boy Nishit Saran left home to study filmmaking at Harvard University. By 1999 he had made the searing Summer in My Veins, capturing on camera his own trepidation at coming out to his mother. It is an important, lovely and poignant film.
The premise of this personal documentary is the following. Nishit’s mother, Minna Saran, and aunts are visiting the U.S. to attend his graduation ceremony, following which the family embarks on a tour of the U.S. All along, Nishit’s hand-held camera captures family members, in particular his mother, in intensely personal moments of joy, pride, playfulness, sorrow, curiosity, anticipation, loss, and acceptance. Even though our protagonist is off-screen for most of the film, his internal conflict at coming out takes centre stage and is deeply relatable. It is compounded by the fact that, feeling particularly reckless one night, he has had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner. Despite its complications, conflict – here in the form of his ‘coming out’– is universal in any parent-child relationship.
Nishit’s mother and aunts are a feisty bunch. One of them is particularly ribald – cheekily singing about bananas, mangoes, and suchlike. A middle-aged woman singing about wanting sex is a radical onscreen sight – perhaps because society is in denial that such desires exist. It is one powerful moment amongst many, emphasising the power of a personal narrative documentary. This art form will go where popular films can’t, and one has to salute the courage of this young filmmaker.
The scene then shifts to the women talking about homosexuality – whether it is fad, preference, or choice. To me, in its tenor this was a far calmer conversation than one would expect in a middle-class Indian household. The women come across as curious, possibly understanding, but not hateful. It is instructive though, that no male member of the family is being filmed here, and so one never knows what the men of the family think and how they would respond.
After much apprehension, Nishit tells his mother he is gay. Her initial disbelief instantly gives way to complete and unconditional acceptance:
Minna Saran: “You are joking, you like to shock people. Are you going around with… men?”
Nishit: “I have.”
Minna Saran: “You’re my son. I’m not going to be ashamed of what you do, or who you are. Till the time I’m alive, I’m with you, I’m with you, I’m with you.”
Reader, let’s take a minute here to feel the moment.
Like Nishit, millions of youngsters leave home in pursuit of education or work. The act of leaving home, whether you skip town, city, or country and for whatever reasons social or economic, by its very nature will test everything one holds dear. It tests habits, preferences, beliefs and relationships. In some cases, stepping out is freeing and safe, particularly from the viewpoint of sexuality. As a matter of choice, for many queer youngsters moving from India – a country where homosexuality is criminalised, to the United States – a country where same sex marriages are legal, can be a liberating move. Anonymity and distance from home culture allows for the freedom to express, freedom to mingle, and freedom to cohabit without the fear of retribution. These liberties are also accorded to the ‘straight’ population.
I am not arguing that moving to the U.S. prompted Nishit to ‘come out’; he had probably wanted to do it for some time, and it all came together while he was in the U.S. studying film, and he chose to film it. Just moving from one social paradigm to another can be a freeing experience. It will bring opportunities to meet people from other cultures, question norms one is raised with, and thereby equip an individual with their own guide map.
I am also not suggesting that crossing a physical boundary is paramount to the full expression of our individual sexualities. It is not, though it can certainly be helpful and present distinct possibilities. What is paramount is one’s own ability to question and hop over one’s mental barriers. The ability to question the collective thought, feelings and beliefs of a society that, to this day, legally sees homosexuality as criminal behaviour, derides people who shun heteronormative marriage, and is in denial about the rights of the LGBTQ community.
The full expression of our individual sexualities can only bloom if we are ready to question, think and course-correct together. It’s a constant introspective conversation with oneself and others, as Nishit’s poignant Summer in My Veins shows us.
Nishit Saran died in 2002, at the age of 25, in a car accident. After his graduation from Harvard, he had returned to India and had continued work as a gay rights activist and filmmaker. You can read his thoughts about Article 377 in his essay My Sexuality is Your Business.
Following his death, Minna Saran founded the Nishit Saran Foundation and campaigns actively for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Much of the film can be watched online.