What was the inspiration behind Sunil's character?
By the time I came on to the writing team Anya and Dan had already come up with the idea for the character. They had formulated a storyline about a middle-aged Bengali widower who has come to America, and they took me through the general arc of his character. There was some initial hesitation on my part because I'm white guy from Illinois, but I've always prided myself on capturing characters, the music of their voices, and who they are emotionally and spiritually.
Did you know much about the background of Sunil's home culture before crafting the character?
I didn't know that much. I had a few friends who were familiar with the culture, but mostly I read and researched a lot to find out how to slip into his skin. What was really helpful was watching Irrfan's work and reading Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction. And I could relate to what it's like to be lonely and feeling adrift. I'm a man in my early forties. Existentially, there were a lot of things I could tap into. Culturally, there was a lot of finding out what kind of foods he ate, what tobacco he smoked, how he spent his time, what his attitude would be like towards American culture. I went to the confectionary on Church Ave. in Brooklyn and just talked to people.
How did Lahiri become involved in creating Sunil?
Early on the in the process they brought in Jhumpa to contribute as a cultural consultant. Her father had been Anya's professor at Boston University. I read her work furiously, since so much of it focuses on the Bengali-American experience, particularly with people who have made their way here.
What was the process of mapping out Sunil's character like?
After the initial framework was conceived, Anya, Danny and I met every day in Los Angeles to put together the details. It was very collaborative. Afterwards, I met with Jhumpa a few times and we went through what we had come up with in Los Angeles. Much of it was meticulously drawn out before the execution of the scripts even began.
How has the character evolved from how you wrote him to Irrfan Kahn's portrayal onscreen?
I wasn't sure how much he would embrace the anger and the Hitchcockian sense of presumed violence. I'd never seen that in his work before, but he took it even further than I had imagined. He's also married to a Bengali woman, so he has a lot of familiarity with the attitudes of the culture. The way he physically changes his posture when Sunil gets angry - that's something he brought to set and was interesting to watch.
In week five, we see Sunil make increasingly threatening comments about his daughter-in-law Julia. What is driving Sunil's anger?
There are a lot of complicated things going on, the biggest of which is his displacement in his own life. Part of it is jealousy of his son's choice to stray from the traditions of his culture, which is something he couldn't do early on in his life. He's also lonely and it's easy to slip from loneliness into bitterness. Jhumpa and I talked a lot about the fact that he's gone from being the king of his own castle to an infantilized position somewhere between the children and the hired help. The last thing is the real attraction he feels towards Julia, which may or may not be mutual. You know, he's a good looking guy, and there are those awkward moments outside the shower, it's certainly possible that she's attracted to him. But the fact that it can't be fulfilled in any way leads to frustration and anger.
Sunil has proved expert at avoiding Paul's obvious questions about getting a job and moving out of his son's home. Why does he refuse to recognize the opportunities in front of him?
A lot of it is out of pride. He refuses to get a job at Best Buy selling printer cartridges or drive a cab. He's Brahmin, which is the intellectual and cultural elite where he's from. And getting a job as a mathematics professor in New York is so competitive that he doesn't think it would be possible. Financially, he spent so much of the money's he's earned on his son's education and his wife's medical needs, so he doesn't have the means. But he's also paralyzed by the possibility of starting over in an entirely new culture, especially one that he doesn't like. Ultimately, he just wants to go home where he's comfortable.
I've always been fascinated by Paul's loneliness, and Sunil is a guy who is relatively the same age, also adrift in his life, also has a son and also lost someone. There are many parallels in the two men's lives.
We see him look for news of the devastation in his home country, how much did he leave of himself back there?
He left a lot of himself back home. For one thing, he's a widower who has been in mourning for five months. He loved Kamala for many years, even if it wasn't with the same passion he had for Malini and that ghost is still back there. And then there's the connection he has to the people, the music, the culture he believes in. He was something of a leader in his community. He felt importance and vitality there and the reports of the floods are precipitating a lot of longing to be home.
When Sunil erupts in Bengali, is he accurately translating the message to Paul?
He said something a lot more dangerous and scary to Paul, but his translation is deliberately ambiguous. It's almost like the way people speak in a Western, "A man can only be pushed so far."
There's a certain sense of camaraderie between Paul and Sunil. What do they see in each other?
I've always been fascinated by Paul's loneliness, and Sunil is a guy who is relatively the same age, also adrift in his life, also has a son and also lost someone. There are many parallels in the two men's lives. The moments when Paul crosses the line and becomes personally invested in his patients are what I find to be most exciting in the show. It's very real and human. I wanted to heighten that as much as possible with all their shared experiences. Paul doesn't just fall under his spell, but feels a real empathy for him. While they're from vastly different cultures, they're both immigrants who came to America somewhat unwillingly. They bond over tea, cigarettes, and American culture, which are all things they have a shared attitude about.
In a recent HBO.com interview with Anya Epstein, she said that they wanted to use Sunil as an example of a character who was unfamiliar with therapy. How did you approach that?
In his first few episodes, Sunil almost never answers a direct question from Paul. There's a real misunderstanding of what therapy is supposed to be and a real distaste for what he think it is. For Paul, it's almost refreshing to have someone come in and not just dump all of their sorrow and detritus on him.
Sunil describes his dream so vividly, particularly the one in which he defends his family from an unnamed menacing woman with his son's detached arm. Dreams must be a difficult thing to capture in therapy, let alone in writing. How did you approach writing the dreams?
I suffer from and enjoy an incredibly vivid dream life. A lot of times there is a sort-of narrative and other times they are just funhouses of non-linear imagery and other scary stuff. Sunil is a very imaginative man and being stuck alone in his house, the mind can be stuck with rich wonder. That's part of why he speaks so poetically.
What did you enjoy about writing for 'In Treatment?'
One thing I love about writing for the show is that the story of someone's face is such a perfect story. We've gotten away from the human palette with all the pyrotechnics of modern filmmaking. And the faces of these two men are so compelling to watch. They both have little boys in their faces as well as wise old men. Irrfan's eyes are just lanterns of thought and expressiveness. Gabriel's mouth twitches and can detonate a scene. He has a subtlety and a stillness that is great for the material.
How does writing for 'In Treatment' compare to writing a play?
It's very similar. One of the tricks to writing great plays is to get people in a room together and not let them leave. You want the tension to escalate. Keeping them there is the hardest part, so you have to take away any excuse for them to leave. The set-up of In Treatment almost forces you to write a well-made play. It forces you to find the secrets and the tension and the revelations. There's a 25-minute cooker going on. Some of the greatest works of theater from Chekov's work to modern playwrights' consist of just a few people in a room with no one leaving. Technology makes it easier to leave a scene, but therapy keeps them there. It's very theatrical.