Karthik, 40, is a reclusive Chennai resident who has all but given up on love. Manu, 34, is an effervescent information technology professional in Delhi who is intent on a new relationship after a failed marriage. There’s something unconventional about this regular romantic set-up – Karthik and Manu are HIV positive.
Their story is documented in Lovesick, which was premiered in India at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1). Directed by Ann S Kim and Priya Giri Desai, Lovesick follows Suniti Solomon, the pioneering doctor and researcher in the field of HIV/AIDS. Solomon, who has done important work in HIV/AIDS treatment in India, also ran a matchmaking service from her Chennai clinic, the YR Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education.
Solomon’s mission had a conventional premise. “In India, marriage is a must,” she says in the documentary. Instead of astrology, Solomon says she relies on medical history to make matches.
The film also examines Solomon’s groundbreaking contribution to HIV/AIDS treatment in India. In 1986, she detected India’s first HIV case. Solomon died in 2015, and was posthumously awarded the Padma Shri in 2017.
Lovesick, which was premiered in 2017 at DOC NYC festival, is Kim and Desai’s first independent documentary after years of experience in broadcasting and public television. In an interview, the American filmmakers spoke about the experience of making Lovesick and the remarkable woman at the centre of it all.
How was the idea born?
Ann: Priya and I were working together in public television in the US and had come across this article about Dr Solomon. Priya is South Asian, and I had studied in India. We were interested in telling a story around what modern India looks like and this was an interesting way to think about HIV/AIDS as a context for how people are working through cultural expectations in a new world.
Priya: This doctor gave us permission to come, chat with her. So we bought two tickets to India. Not only did we speak to the doctor, who was immediately really warm, funny and smart and able to explain complex ideas in a very simple way, but we also started meeting some patients to get an idea of how they were dealing with this marriage issue. We came back home, made a trailer, and started applying for grants to come back.
The documentary was eight years in the making. When was it filmed?
Ann: We started in April 2008. None of us knew how long it will take. Part of that was because matchmaking itself takes time. In our second trip in 2009, we spend a lot of time talking to a lot of people. We also travelled to a lot of places in India. In the edit, the story we focussed on was of Dr Suniti, Manu and Karthik.
Priya: We found Karthik first and followed him starting 2009, for about two years. We met Manu much later. She reached out to the clinic from Delhi. The doctor met with her and thought they would make a good match. We documented as much of their courtship as would be appropriate.
Had their story turned out differently, what course would your documentary have taken?
Ann: We didn’t know if Karthik was going to meet anybody. There are scenes where he said he was going to give up. He was frustrated. Meanwhile, Manu was very optimistic. She had gone through her down period and decided that she was going to be happy and look for her ideal man.
There were a lot of other stories that we invested time following. A part of the edit was [deciding] could we actually tell all these other stories, plan the documentary as a survey of different characters, or was it going to be, as we’re calling it, a docu-romance focused on these two. This is where the Sundance support [Sundance institute is one of their funders] was very helpful. We went to one of their edit labs and that really helped clarify and focus the film.
Priya: When you get to invest in two people’s love story, that becomes something you can latch on to as a viewer. It’s something we can all relate to, whether you have HIV or not. So the decision to focus on a couple, as opposed to doing a survey film of an idea, is what makes the film give you all the feelings you have.
And I think there’s a lot of power and relevance to having told the doctor’s story. She’s a really, really empowered woman. She’s a hero in her field. And to be able to tell her story, especially given the climate in India right now around how women are treated, I think it’s very relevant.
Was the choice of protagonists also because of how they got infected? Karthik contracted the virus from a blood transfusion, and Manu from her ex-husband, whom she did not know was HIV positive.
Ann: We wanted to stay true to his [Karthik’s] character and that was his backstory. And the point of that scene where he discloses how he got it, it’s more about his shock. And the same thing for Manu.
Priya: But it also does speak to the range of the way the epidemic works. And another thing we have since learnt, from Dr Solomon’s son, Sunil, who now runs the clinic, is that most of the people who come to their clinic are housewives. They are at the biggest risk for HIV – it’s not sex workers or truck drivers.
Is there a difference in the way the stigma plays out in India and elsewhere?
Ann: I’ve done HIV work in South Africa and the US, and I would say the stigma is the same. Even the expectations of women versus men and shaming women in a different way than men. The context of the pressure to marry, that’s different [in India].
Priya: I actually think that though this is Indian film, it travels very well. People will find themselves in it.
Karthik and Manu are both honest, evocative and expressive in the documentary. How did you draw them out?
Priya: Our shoots were intentionally really, really intimate – it was often either just Ann and me and the camera and the subject. We did not have a big crew in front of those people.
Karthik, especially, was very careful about his identity and anything that would give it away. Ann settled on this way of spending time with him. He would finish work, pick her up in his car, and without turning the video on, she would record audio of him driving and talking. They would get a meal and hang out and we found that he really opened up in that particular setting.
Ann: The visual language for the film came out of that. Sometimes, visually it felt very constraining. I would have to crop around their faces and find other ways of showing their emotion. For Manu it was easier, she was effusive in her hand gestures. But Karthik was very measured. I would say the visual language was built on what they needed in order to engage in the process.
How did the focus on love and arranged marriages in India come in?
Priya: There were a couple of reasons why we settled on it. One was that, as we were getting to know the doctor, we noted that hers was a love marriage. She was actually kind of a romantic, she really loved her husband and had this belief that everyone should have a shot at that kind of love. So she gave us that framework.
The other thing was that we were very mindful was that we were also going to be showing this film to western audiences. They don’t have a practice of arranged marriage and we wanted to give them an on-the-ground assessment.