Sunil Tripathi was a student at Brown University. In March 2013 his family — he was the son of an Indian father and American mother, and brother to Sangeeta and Ravi — discovered Sunil was missing from his apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. At
that time the young man was dealing with severe depression.
Then a month later, bombs went off during the Boston
Marathon. And for about 12 hours, the world began to hear
that Sunil could possibly be one of the Boston bombers. It
was a horrible case of misidentification that shattered his
Neal Broffman — journalist and documentary filmmaker
who has worked with CNN — has made a remarkable
documentary on their story — the heart wrenching Help Us
Find Sunil Tripathi.
Broffman Skyped with India Abroad as he was heading to
Toronto’s HotDocs festival for the Canadian premiere of the
I was very moved by this film. I heard the story as the search
for the Boston bombers was on. When did you hear about the
Actually, I am curious, you followed it as it was unfolding?
Yes, because I am journalist in New York and this was a
story that many Indian American journalists were discussing
on social media.
The bombings happened April 15, 2013, and Sunil was
misidentified April 18. At the beginning of March, before
Sunil went missing, Elisa Gambino (Broffman’s wife and
executive producer) and I were on a trip to Ethiopia doing
work for one of our clients and Sangeeta Tripathi (Sunil’s
sister) was with us. She is a consultant for the company we
We came back to the US March 15. When Sangeeta came
home the next day they discovered that Sunil had gone
missing from his apartment. We weren’t close friends at that
time, but we had come out of a very arduous trip and
sometimes people become friends in such circumstances.
A week to 10 days later, Sangeeta got in touch with me and
asked me to edit video clips that the family had made talking
to the camera. As a friend I edited the You Tube video the
family put up.
It was extremely moving and emotional for me as a parent
myself to sit here in my office and see the clips, especially
Judy (Sunil’s mother) talking to her son. My heart just went
out to them.
The morning after the misidentification I woke up and I
checked my emails and I had received what you can
characterize as a death threat.
Even you considering you are not a part of the family?
Yes to me. It was hateful and it was strange. I went online
and realized what had happened with Sunil’s name. By that
time it was all over. But there was a sense of a huge cyclone
swirling. And to think what the family must have gone
through that night.
The confusion lasted less than 24 hours?
That’s right. FBI held a press conference the day earlier
and released photos of Suspect 1 and Suspect 2. No names
were attached to the photos. But that kicked off the
misidentification when one girl — one of Sunil’s former high
school classmates said one of the suspects looked like Sunil.
But immediately after the bombs went off a SubReditt was
created to help find the bombers. For three days this social
media engine were churning off and people were very
The girl sent out a tweet and all of sudden people started
focusing on that and it exploded. It wasn’t until 12 hour later
that Pete Williams of NBC said that FBI had released the
names of the Tsarnaev brothers.
But to see how the journalists behaved in this high-speed
social media environment was very disturbing. No one from
the authorities confirmed Sunil’s name, but so many
journalists felt it was okay to retweet or broadcast it. It was
broadcast in Australia and a station went to air with it in
But even if it is said that someone is a suspect, the public
starts to believe that person is actually guilty.
Yes, but the fact is that Sunil’s name was never on any
scanners. He was never considered a suspect. But there was
an explosion of innuendos and attacks against the family.
On another level, after the journalists walked away, four or
five days later when Sunil was found, I got a call from some
journalists who wanted to use the video for a story on Sunil,
Yes, I felt at that time there was a
potential for a film that could be a
moment where we stand back and
look at how we as journalists behave
and shine a light on what the family
It wasn’t an easy conversation. So I
waited a couple of weeks and really
thought how this could possibly be
I got in touch with Sangeeta and it
was a difficult conversation. I knew
how hard it was for them. She went
to her family and we had a series of
follow-up conversations about what
could this film be and how can we
Our visions did match up.
Editorially it was our film, but clearly
the family had to trust us.
I went to Bryn Mawr for Sunil’s memorial. In the fall we
went back and even spent a week with the family over
Thanksgiving. We also went to Providence twice for other
Along the way the family was approached by other
documentary filmmakers — including a two-time Academy
Award winning documentary producer, but they had agreed
to work with me.
Many documentary filmmakers live with their subject for
years but in your case you knew how the film was supposed to
end. Was it easier or harder since you knew what you had to
When I think about making a film, I love the process of
how things are happening, a film being developed as it
unfolds. This one was not that. We were going back to a
story that had already happened. That provided a different
challenge — how do we illustrate what happened in a story
that evolved in such a compressed time period.
In Sunil’s case, people said the most hateful things about
him, ripped his family to shreds. So, I wanted to reclaim his
DNA and let people know this is who he was.
I am sure the family saw the film. Did you watch it with
Yes, last September Elisa and I went to visit them at a
house they have on the Jersey Shore. There were 14 of them.
It was storming outside. We turned off the lights and
watched the film on a big screen. As you can imagine, it was
a very emotional film to watch. I cry every time watching the
film. And to see the film with the parents, knowing the
prism they were seeing it from was hard. It’s heartbreaking.
Clearly it’s a film they wish that hadn’t been made, but they
fully support the film. It’s been two years and now as the film
is making rounds of film festivals, the family wants to get
more engaged about how they help other families.
As a filmmaker how do you feel revisiting the tragedy?
I have other work to do and other projects to follow, but
this story has been in my heart and head since I woke up
that morning and realized what had happened. I want it to
be seen by as wide an audience as possible. We opened at the
Atlanta Film Festival. It’s an Oscar-qualifying festival for
docs and shorts and we won the audience award there. It’s
traveling to other festivals now. n
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and a distressing
misidentification, people said the most hateful things about the missing
student and ripped his already traumatized family to shreds.
Aseem Chhabra/India Abroad finds out how Neal Broffman
became the one filmmaker the family trusted with their tragedy.
CINEMA WITH A SOUL/HOT DOCS M16 THE MAGAZINE
India Abroad May 22, 2015
Sunil Tripathi with his siblings Ravi and Sangeeta. Inset, Neal Broffman.
PHOTOGRAPHS COUR TES Y: NEAL BROFFMAN