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Graduate Known For Activist Films Dies

Nishit Saran ’98, an award-winning filmmaker, gay rights activist and essayist in his native India, died last Wednesday after a car accident in New Delhi. He was 25.

Riding with Saran were four of his friends, including a popular Indian music TV host, all of whom were killed instantly when a speeding truck plowed into their car before fleeing the scene. The truck’s driver was arrested the following day on charges of homicide.

“If you think of the world between consumers and creators, Nishit was always a creator. He was constantly looking around for things he could do good with,” said Rahul Sagar, a friend of Saran’s and a visiting fellow in the government department. “He was inspiring not just for his individuality and his talents but for his willingness to use them.”

Saran was best known for his work as a filmmaker, a role he thrived in both at Harvard’s visual and environmental studies (VES) department and at international film festivals. His 1999 personal documentary, Summer in My Veins, won high praise from critics and became an inspiration to gays for its frank portrayal of his own reconcilement between family ties and homosexuality.

“It’s hard to be gay in India, but through his work he gave people the courage to be who they were,” Sagar said. “He’d get letters and phone calls from people who said he changed their life.”

After his success in the United States and abroad, Saran shied away from the allure of Hollywood and Wall Street to return to New Delhi, where he was born, so he could continue making films and raising awareness of homosexuality in India.

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“For him film wasn’t just about telling the story. He made you care what he cared about,” said filmmaker Ross McElwee, who was Saran’s mentor and thesis advisor in the VES department. “And what he cared about had tremendous application for issues outside of his own life.”

Saran attended the Army Public School in New Delhi, eventually placing first in the country on the Senior Secondary Examination, the Indian equivalent of the SAT.

After coming to Harvard in 1994, Saran became an active presence in the Harvard’s Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters’ Alliance and was awarded a Detur Prize in 1996 for general academic distinction. As a senior, Saran was appointed to the Phi Beta Kappa academic honors society.

“He wanted to get the most out of Harvard,” said Leverett House tutor Karthik Muralidharan ’98, an acquaintance of Saran’s. “He loved it here most because the school allowed him to discover parts of himself.”

And that understanding, Muralidharan said, led to “his real passion for the power of film as a form of expression.”

When he came to Hooker Professor of Visual Arts Alfred F. Guzzetti’s introductory filmmaking class as a sophomore, Saran’s eagerness made waves in the VES department.

“He was a true enthusiast,” Guzzetti said, recollecting Saran as a prodigy, and the only VES concentrator who understood psychoanalyst Lacan, a famous name in film studies, “better than any of us.”

“He could be very quiet, but then all of a sudden he’d start talking a mile a minute with great brilliance and sparks flying,” Guzzetti said.

As he finished editing his thesis, a documentary about his mother’s battle with breast cancer, Saran began brainstorming for Summer in My Veins.

With a digital video camera in hand, Saran decided the film would document a trip across America with his mother and two of his aunts, who had come from India for his graduation.

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