Images of a dance bar flash by. At first it is unclear — are these quick cuts or is it the harsh strobe lights at work? The dance floor is crowded. A few men, shirtless, are walking with drinks in their hands, sipping on straws. The camera rests on our narrator, also the director of the documentary Summer In My Veins, Nishit Saran. He’s also smoking, sipping his drink. His low, controlled voice overlays, “I snuck out tonight and came to this local gay club. I had been having a lot of depressing thoughts, and this whole question of coming out is starting to make my being gay itself a depressing affair. So I needed to get away. And here I am. And it is wonderful.”
A beat later, he retracts this narrated joy: “But that’s not really true.” This club reminds him of a similarly shaded night a few months ago, when he met Troy. “I was just standing at the bar when Troy came up and started talking to me. One thing led to another and I ended up taking him home. We talked a while and started messing around, but he stopped me and told me he was HIV+. I had never even known an HIV+ person before. But I thought I could still sleep with him, as long as we were safe. So I started fucking him with a condom on, but at some point, I took off the condom and started fucking him without it. I don’t know why I did that. I wasn’t even drunk.”
A startling and honest confession to the camera. An intimacy that never feels invasive, as though we were roped in as confidantes. An intimacy that never feels provocative, that never lets us feel like voyeurs. An intimacy that comes from the honesty of his unresolved feelings, his complicated relationship to queerness, to his body, to the camera. He doesn’t have answers. Only intentions.
Why did he take off the condom, I wonder, and immediately stop. The body lunged a certain way during the act of sex, it craved something, something else needed sating — he merely listened, and now he is mulling over the consequences. You do, you figure.
In 1994, Saran, a thoroughbred Delhi boy, left his nest to study filmmaking at Harvard University. On graduating, his mother Minna Saran and aunts came to celebrate him, with him, and they embarked on a road trip, during which Saran was hoping to come out to his mother, on camera. His aunts are a randy bunch — funjabis who make sex jokes, eating bananas while making strong, suggestive eye contact, dancing as though no one is looking, aware that everyone is, in fact, looking — even us, an audience some 25 years after it was shot.
Parallel to this, Saran is waiting for the results of his HIV test, which tenses his coming out. He strategically thinks, on the off chance he tests positive, he cannot possibly tell his mother that he has HIV and that he is gay together. The combined tragedy would hunker any person. The kind of algebra queer people dance around, wondering if coming out is truly worth it — the timing, the consequences, potential and certain.
The camera that Saran holds at eye level feels natural to the places it is occupying. It doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. Neither do the people it is capturing draw attention to themselves. No one is jostling for the gaze. Instead, the camera is a participant. At one point, Saran decides, in San Francisco, that he is going to come out to his mother. He hands over the camera to his cousin, and walks up to her. She is leaning on a railing looking out over the blue waters at the Golden Gate.
Suddenly, something overcomes him, “I discovered the strangest thing. For the past few years … I had taped my mother, pretty much constantly. And now, when I was trying to talk to her without a camera, about something so important, I suddenly felt bare. I felt I couldn’t tell her anything without a layer between us.” This is one of the film’s most evocative achievements — to make the camera and the filmmaker feel indistinguishable. People are reacting to the camera as Nishit, not for Nishit. The film medium feels like an extension of his selfhood, making the intimacy feel radical, raw.
Saran comes out later, in a scene that shivers like a leaf in a storm. He is holding the camera — eye level, per usual, his mother in focus. When she is speaking to him, she is looking directly into the camera. Can she not see his eyes as he is saying this? Is the camera a literal layer that Saran has fashioned?
His mother’s response to his rip meanders, from pretending ignorance — “what did you say?” — to denial — “you like to shock people” — to doubt — “what makes you think you’re gay?” — to silence. “Say something,” Saran prods.
“You can’t say this to me on camera, Nishit. You can’t,” his mother pleads in a tone that is both hurt and affectionate. Saran apologizes. The camera keeps rolling. She looks away. Even when she is turning to him — to the camera — her eyes are wandering away. “It’s very strange. Very strange,” the mother keeps trying to find words, balancing her personal, immediate response with a deep awareness of how her response will affect her son. She keeps using the word “strange”, hoping it expresses what she is feeling — disoriented — without hurting him.
In the background we can hear some people have arrived at their home — guests for a farewell dinner. Minna is heading back to India soon. She doesn’t respond to the new people, her mind still with Nishit’s confession. She looks directly at him, “It’s about you. So I will cope up with it. Nothing will ever change what is between us.”
She lights a cigarette, “Whatever you are, whatever you do with your life, I’m there with you, till the time I’m alive. I’m with you. I’m with you… I’m with you, and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not ashamed of it.”
It is here, with the mother’s mentioning “till the time I’m alive” that the film produces a ghostly rupture. Three years after the film, Nishit Saran passed away in a car accident. His mother opened up a foundation under his name to support LGBTQ youth. She was part of the petition to repeal Section 377. Decades later, on what would have been his 45th birthday, his then-lover writes a long, tender remembrance of him on Instagram, of them fumbling together in love, in sex, in life.
The film ends with a camera on Nishit. He is getting his HIV results. Nerves, again. He tests negative. As though he had held his breath for too long, he exhales forcefully, smiles. Then, taking cue from him, having said everything that had to be said, the film, too, smiles with a text appearing on the screen: “Now I just need to figure out how to show this movie to my mother.”