East meets West in more ways than one in Irrfan Khan’s performance on HBO’s ‘In Treatment’ as a transplanted Indian trying unsuccessfully to live contentedly in Brooklyn.
Khan’s character – Sunil – has moved to New York City from Calcutta following the death of his wife six months earlier. Now, he’s having trouble adjusting to life amid the yuppie trappings of his son (Samrat Chakrabarti) and American daughter-in-law (Sonya Walger) and seeks help from ‘In Treatment’ psychotherapist Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne). Episodes featuring Sunil, the first of three patients in the series’ third season that began Oct. 25, can be seen Monday nights at 9/8c on HBO.
Not only does Sunil struggle to bridge this cultural chasm, but the role itself demands that Khan, 47, undertake a level of introspection common in western acting, but, according to the actor, a technique not commonly taught in India.
If Khan looks familiar, it’s because he’s been seen in a handful of high-profile American movies, including ‘A Mighty Heart’ (2006), ‘The Darjeeling Limited (2007)’ and most prominently, 2008’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ (he played the police inspector). In a phone interview from Bombay (known officially as Mumbai since 1995, but which Khan still calls Bombay), Khan talked about Sunil, the differences between western and Indian acting styles, and the intense experience of spending several “challenging” weeks filming Sunil’s ‘In Treatment’ episodes in a Brooklyn studio.
How did you get cast on ‘In Treatment’? Who picked you to do it?
Like all other roles which I have done in Hollywood, it’s the same story. People know you, people have seen your work and because the role needs a particular kind of person, they think I’ll be good to play that role and they come and approach me. [Actor, producer and screenwriter] Dan Futterman, who’s the writer of [the 2005 movie] ‘Capote,’ and executive producer of [‘In Treatment’], we worked together in ‘A Mighty Heart’ [in 2007] and he told me that he was quite impressed by my work in ‘A Mighty Heart,’ although I have a different opinion. He told me that when he was planning the series, he had an option about whether to do an Asian story or to do some other country. So he found me and said, ‘If you are interested to play this role, then we will develop this story and then we’ll do it.’ And we sounded out the story and I really, really loved the basic idea of the story. That’s how I got the part.
What was it like to work with Gabriel Byrne everyday?
Gabriel made some gestures which were unique, and I have never ever come across an actor who has been so warm, so caring and so considerate. What he did, even before I met him, he sent his secretary, and the secretary came and gave me his cell number [and told Irrfan] he’s available and told me that [if and when] you need anything in this country, please, this is Gabriel’s personal contact [information]. It was a fantastic thing, you know, [for] a man coming from a different country – you know, you are halfway around the world, in a different part of the world. And then, working with him was an excellent experience because of the amount of importance he gives to the other actor’s performance.
Tell us about Sunil. What were the challenges of playing him?
It was a very intense and very dark world, the dark mental state [Sunil] was going to. For me, personally, as an actor, those few months were really, really difficult because it’s not a mental state where you would like to be. It’s a state which is very disturbing and you can’t do this role at the start without dwelling in that kind of mental state for a long time.
This requirement that you really get inside the head of this character seems like a particularly American acting technique. Would you say so?
It is, because there is no other way to play this character. What I was seeing in this character was much beyond just feeling intense and dramatic. I wanted to bring [to his personality] some kind of mischief, some kind of, you know, a lighter side of [him]. He is a person who is difficult to gauge [who] has some other thing which he’s hiding [or] trying to hide. Is he playing with Gabriel? There are so many possibilities, so many shades. So I wanted to bring in all those kind of layers. It was really challenging.
What would you say is the principal difference between American acting techniques taught here and what they teach actors in India?
It is different. We don’t have much of an emphasis on realistic acting. There are a few actors who have done that and I was particularly interested in that. But in drama school, they don’t have [an] emphasis on that. But it’s up to you, you know. The kind of acting schools you have [in the United States], you have a technique to tell an actor how to connect to emotions in a particular way that we don’t have.
This show’s scenes consist basically of one actor sitting down for a half-hour conversation with another actor. There’s not much action. As an actor, how do you compensate for that? For example, Sunil has a habit of rolling cigarettes and smoking them in his sessions with Dr. Weston. Is that a piece of business you came up with to provide some element of visual interest to the sessions?
It was there in the script and I started learning to roll my own cigarettes. I think that’s the uniqueness of the series, that it doesn’t really take liberties [common to] filmmaking. It doesn’t take liberties with time and space, it just sticks to [being] as real as possible. I think the series might lose its impact [if it didn’t use this] minimalistic approach. The series just stays on a very, very basic level that is simple. The single camera is so unobtrusive, it doesn’t ever try to impose its presence.
Sunil has been persuaded to attend therapy mainly by his daughter-in-law. It’s another area where there’s this huge divide between the American and Indian cultures. Sunil even tells Dr. Weston that Indians don’t have therapy. Is this accurate?
Yes, that’s true because we don’t believe in therapists here. Sometimes, when I tell Americans that we don’t have therapists, they are really surprised. I think that in American culture that’s become a need to have a therapist in your life, but we don’t really depend on them, and [Sunil] also mentions in the first episode that we go to a friend and talk with a friend and that’s what our therapy’s all about. That was also [an issue for the character and his story]: Will he be affected by the therapy, will it really work for him or will it not at all work for him? That was also something [into] which we delve in the story of Sunil. I really wanted to make it crystal clear for the audience to know whether the therapy is working or not.