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.