‘In Treatment’ with Irrfan Khan

Entrapment, escape, and a startling breakthrough with a widowed professor from Bengal on a therapeutic couch in Brooklyn

It is Irrfan. Irrfan Khan. Is it, yes, oh, I mutter. The TV remote stays mute. Addicted to the might and madness of the human mind for years through books, films, talks, I let the jazz of adrenaline play my veins in prep for the fourth season of the HBO series, In Treatment, that debuted recently. I am surfing through previous seasons (which aired between 2008 and 2010) on Disney + Hotstar.

Having compulsively watched 50-something therapist Dr Paul Weston (actor Gabriel Byrne) over 70-plus episodes, I am in love with his non-verbals as with his spoken word. Shrink in shining armour. In dark jackets, polished shoes, silver shimmers in his hair, he navigates his clients through abusive relationships, teenage rebellions, erotic transference, or difficult divorces. I have been in his clinic for many weeks, and Americans in therapy exhaling with cuss words amuses me. I was unprepared though to find Irrfan Khan unpacking his life in Season 3.

In Treatment is intense. Often, a lifetime tides up between two people talking to each other. Reminiscent of intimate, theatre work. A viewer can pan Weston’s book-lined, wood-panelled office with the camera or invisibly take a seat. Produced and developed by Rodrigo Garcia — based on the Israeli series Be Tipul — the programme shows four patients each week in sessions with Weston, followed by one with his own therapist to dust his mental cobwebs.

Gabriel Byrne, as Dr Paul Weston, and Irrfan Khan in ‘In Treatment’ season three | Photo Credit: Illustration: M Arivarasu

Flashback to Sunil

In Treatment won many honours at The Emmys, Golden Globes, and Writers Guild Awards after its 2008 launch. Several episodes for Season 3 were written by playwright Adam Rapp, with author Jhumpa Lahiri consulting on the Irrfan story. I had no idea though, until a day after the actor’s first death anniversary on April 29 this year that “one of the greatest actors alive”, as Rapp described Irrfan to The New York Times over a decade ago, was grieving all those years back on a Brooklyn couch.

Sunil Sanyal, 2010. His psychic pain is as palpable as a limp, when herded by his son Arun and daughter-in-law Julia, he enters Weston’s office. Irrfan plays a greying widower in his 50s. His anguish, as the recently-bereaved husband of Kamala, struggling with his bristling present, a Bengali maths professor from Kolkata who loves recreational cricket, is a fascinating part of his acting oeuvre. Barely written about in India. Who else could have played a man so deeply thorned by conflict, shadowed by demons from a tumultuous past, and express it through the borderless language of his eyes. Whose ‘act’ could cast anything from desperation to heartache, from sexual longing to an ordinary Indian’s cynicism.

Uzo Aduba as Dr Brooke Taylor in ‘In Treatment’ season four 

Confused by his unnerving dreams and insomniac neurosis, Sanyal longs to return to Kolkata. His daughter-in-law, a modern American woman, unabashed in her mannerisms as a wife, whose perfume reminds him of “black pepper and jasmine”, a mother unfettered by ideas of sacrifice unlike Sanyal’s dead wife, arouses a storm of resentment in him. The arousal is the presenting problem.

“Can I smoke in your office… err Paul?” “Can I offer you some tea, Paul? In my country having tea with friends is how people grieve instead of paid therapy…” says Sanyal. Weston opens a window to prevent the smoke from Sanyal’s life lighting a fire, and brews tea for him. Sanyal mourns his wife but also his Brahmin Bengali-ness. And Kolkata, where caste decides emotional fates.

A sudden déjà vu now circles me. I have met Sunil Sanyal before. It is not so much his sloppy, half-sleeved sweaters and closed toe, tan sandals, but the Kolkata-dusted bewilderment of a Bengali in New York that triggers the memory of Ashoke Ganguly from the 2006 film, The Namesake. Prof Ganguly was not as troubled in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Lahiri’s novel, but he is ponderous as only Irrfan can be.

A still from ‘In Treatment’ season four 

Waiting for the connect

Now with the Covid-19 elephant in the room, the therapeutic space is crowded. As mental health dilemmas intensify globally, spiked peculiarly in the US by racial divisiveness, HBO has revived In Treatment. The fourth season opened on May 23 with African-American actor, Emmy awardee Uzo Aduba as the shrink. Dr Brooke Taylor sits on a Herman Miller chair in a Los Angeles home that looks like a gallery of modern art with sorbet sofas and tech tools. A male home health aide, an immigrant, is on a virtual session. Others meet Taylor at her house, including a Black teenage sex addict identifying as lesbian female. Taylor represents change but in the episodes so far, the “connect” is just about warming up.

Like life clutched by the past, I rewind to Sunil Sanyal and Paul Weston, and find them seated on opposite sides of a glass in a detention centre. The boundaries are back. They speak through a visitor’s telephone. Sanyal is being deported to India for the “criminal threat” he poses to his daughter-in-law’s life while Weston struggles with a Parkinson’s diagnosis.

“Will you be okay? Sometimes I worry about you…” a wry Sanyal quips to a grimacing Weston. “I know what it is like to feel such loneliness and I hope someday you will free yourself from it.”

This last episode concludes with Sunil humming a Bengali song, of a moonlit night and a goodbye. Vidhaye bandhu vidhaye (farewell, friend, farewell)

It is a breakthrough moment.

Shefalee Vasudev is editor of The Voice of Fashion.

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