When filmmakers Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai stepped into Dr. Suniti Solomon's office in April 2008, they knew they weren't meeting any ordinary doctor.
Her story, which the pair had encountered in a news article, read like a movie's log line: Having discovered India's first case of HIV in 1986 and founded one of the country's foremost AIDS clinics, the physician was now providing her patients with matchmaking services in addition to medical care.
But little could have prepared them for the 70-year-old sari-clad doctor, whose spunk soon had them, as Desai recalled, "on the floor" laughing.gi
"Within five minutes of the conversation, she was also declaring that masturbation should be taught in school sex-ed programs," Kim said. "We had found the perfect character for a documentary."
"Lovesick," scheduled to premiere Nov. 15 at the DOC NYC film festival, follows Solomon — who died in 2015 — and two of her patients, Karthik and Manu, as they navigate a society in which the filmmakers said marriage is a non-negotiable, but where relentless stigmas against HIV and AIDS makes it near-impossible for anyone to make their diagnosis public, let alone find a life partner.
Comparing viral loads and white blood cell counts alongside standard matchmaking criteria like religion and income, Solomon and her team play Cupid, working to bridge the gaps between social norms and unspeakable taboos.
After a combined 36 years in public health reporting and television production, the filmmakers said they saw a rare opportunity with Solomon to illuminate an often-hidden side of life with HIV and AIDS. "The human experience angle offered an interesting contrast from the data-driven ways this issue is usually addressed," Kim said.
But exploring personal stories was challenging, they discovered, making "Lovesick" an eight-year journey due largely to the lack of patients willing to be filmed.
It took at least 30 individual interviews, conversations with countless nonprofits, and visits everywhere from urban speed dating events to rural activist networks before Kim and Desai found apprehensive participants in Karthik and Manu. The two agreed to the project only under the conditions of protected identities and Solomon's vote of confidence.
The production schedule stretched further once the filmmakers' realized building rapport with their subjects had no shortcuts. Kim and Desai made a total of 16 trips between the U.S. and India funded by a crowdfunding campaign and several grants.
Although the process culminated in some surprise payoffs for the audience, it also underscored several persisting social stigmas in India.
"These people are part of a community that looks down on everything they're living, whether it's being single, childless, or HIV-positive," Desai said. "They need explanations for it all without giving themselves away. That the doctor was empathetic enough to help them find answers for the next person who questioned them, was an incredible gift."
Solomon was especially well-prepared for the job, the filmmakers noted, given that she had skirted convention throughout her own life.
When other doctors recoiled from treating patients during the early days of HIV, she took an early retirement from a high-powered research position at Madras Medical College to establish the YRG Care Centre for AIDS Research and Education, the filmmakers said. She was married late by traditional standards to her longtime love, a Christian from southern India, rather than a partner chosen for her by her Hindu family. Unlike most women of her generation, she had just one child.
Her choices, the filmmakers said, reflected an attitude that proved invaluable for her patients: a thorough awareness of cultural norms, but little sense of obligation to adhere to them.
Desai and Kim observed that she thought nothing of introducing a woman from Chennai in eastern India to a man based in Mumbai in western India if they seemed otherwise well-suited on paper. Knowing that geographic mobility and inter-community marriages were uncommon for most of her clients' socio-economic standing, she'd urge them to tell questioning relatives that they simply fell in love.
"She saw herself as pragmatic, not revolutionary. She just did what worked for people." Desai said. "We perceived the renegade in her."
Marriage has allowed Solomon's patients more than life without ostracism, Kim, who worked as chief design officer for former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, noted.
"'Lovesick' is a testament to the increasing evidence around the human costs of loneliness, and these couples embody the science pointing to social connections as fundamental to human health," Kim said.
Viral loads, white blood cell counts, and adherence to treatment regimes have been known to improve once couples marry, she added.
"Dr. Solomon's matchmaking doesn't just make for nice stories. It has truly helped people manage their disease," Kim said.
Above all, the filmmakers aim to demonstrate modern love in the face of continued global stigma against HIV and AIDS.
"Populations everywhere, from Eastern Europe to the Asian-American community here in the United States, are struggling with it. People haven't considered what it means to be HIV-positive and find love, even though it's such a universal need," said Desai. "We hope 'Lovesick' opens that conversation by showing that a life of dignity is possible after a positive diagnosis."