Roshan Sethi is a physician and screenwriter working at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. His debut film as writer-director, 7 Days starring Karan Soni (who co-wrote the film) and Geraldine Viswanathan, won Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards and is out now in theaters through Cinedigm. He began writing as a student at Harvard Medical School and co-created Fox’s The Resident while finishing his residency.
I grew up being a big reader and at some point, when I was 11 or 12, I decided that I wanted to be a novelist. But I had also grown up in and around my mother’s clinic and was thinking about pursuing a career in medicine. I nurtured both interests simultaneously, because they were each part of the fabric of my life. My brother and I worked at my mother’s clinic. We stood in for the receptionist whenever she wasn’t available, so we were interacting with patients from a very young age. Later, we volunteered at the hospital as well. And in between all of that, I was just reading, reading, reading.
I’ve always had an extraordinary degree of ambition, which I honestly think is because I’m gay. I’ve known since I was 11, but it took me until I was 30 to admit it. And in the long process of coming out, I was quite tortured. I felt really broken inside — like I had something to prove to fill the hole in my heart. So, I was constantly distracting myself with one borderline delusional career ambition after another, because it was a way of not dwelling on what I really didn’t want to think about or feel. If I hadn’t had that psychological motivation, I think I would have pursued medicine alone. I ended up needing writing, because of what I was going through.
I had a horrible time when I was both closeted and manically pursuing two careers. It definitely took a toll on my mental health. For much of that time, I hardened myself, obscuring my natural softness, taking on an aggressive personality that never really fit me. It took coming out – and also just relaxing in the broader sense – before I was able to accomplish what I think I was supposed to accomplish. I don’t think my pursuing two careers had any purpose other than trying to heal an inner wound. It was a really crazy time. I would veer from 60- to 80-hour hospital weeks, to notes calls, to flying from Boston to Los Angeles for a few days to take meetings. A lot of it was extraordinary and a lot of it was not, but everything bad about it was my fault. I should have stopped and breathed. I don’t think we tell people to do that in their twenties. There’s a sense that you’re supposed to form your relationships and career in that decade. I wish I had relaxed more and taken the time to reckon with what I needed to reckon with.
When I was a resident doctor I would get up around 5 a.m. to start writing, sometimes in the hospital itself, in the cafeteria or the resident room. Wherever I could find a place to write, I would write. It was easier on the weekends, because then I at least had mornings to myself. I finished my residency in June 2020 and am now an attending doctor. I rarely do any writing or anything industry-related when I’m in the hospital, so fortunately I no longer write in a hospital cafeteria!
I think being a writer as a parallel career to medicine was an outlet for a lot of my emotions. When I was still in the closet, I felt so many things that I had a hard time expressing in any way except through my writing. But now that’s all changed. I’ve gone from a place of aggressive, relentless ambition to being very soft. I trail behind my boyfriend Karan all day in the house like a lost puppy, the opposite of the person I was for all those years in the hospital, racing around, trying to get things done, trying to succeed.
It feels like I’m now the person I always was, but never could access. A person who likes joy and laughing. Interestingly, I never worked in comedy. The Resident has some funny moments, but I don’t think anyone would describe it as a comedy. And I never even watched or read anything comedic. I actually used to be obsessed with Victorian literature, which is really the literature of repression. There was so much that people at that time couldn’t say or do, and they were always having very charged interactions where everything important was extremely subterranean. There’s works of gay love from that time that are not explicit, and there are works of straight love that are not explicit. I was taken by all of that, for obvious reasons — but I have since lost all interest. I’m now much more invested in reading and writing that expresses joy and love.
Karan and I have been dating since 2018. After I finished my residency, I really had my heart set on making a movie, for no discernible reason except that it just felt like the right time and something that I needed to do. Karan is a very funny actor, but also an extremely gifted writer who can make anything funny. He improvises a lot and what he comes up with is almost always funnier than what is on the page. So it was very natural for him to work on 7 Days. We made it very quickly. It was a romantic experience, because I had never seen him act live before. I was astonished by the full extent of his talent – coming up with new lines and acting them out in a funny way, right on the spot, all in one moment. I’d never seen anyone do that before. His brain moves so fast. We achieved a different kind of intimacy and both felt really linked as we were making the film with each other.
As told to Nick Dawson by Roshan Sethi. Featured image by Liz Cardenas shows Karan Soni and Roshan Sethi on the set of 7 Days.