As Sunil, one of Dr. Paul Weston’s three new patients on this season of HBO’s In Treatment (his new episode airs tonight at nine), Irrfan Khan (The Darjeeling Limited, Slumdog Millionaire) plays a battered soul paralyzed by grief over the loss of his wife who is struggling to adjust to the strangeness of western culture. By contrast, the Khan we meet at HBO’s midtown studios to talk about this season is dashing in his precisely tailored dark suit and Ray Bans. “Will you let me smoke?” he asks, taking a seat in a pewter-velour armchair. Like Gabriel Byrne's Dr. Weston, we make an exception for him. He pulls out a sheet of rolling paper, pinches a fat chunk of brown between his fingers, starts to roll a cigarette, and the session begins.
Of all the patients this season, it seems Dr. Weston feels he has to treat Sunil most delicately.
What Gabriel, Dr. Weston, is trying to pose is that it’s just a chat, but Sunil knows that it’s not a chat. That’s why in the second episode, [when Byrne] says "the patient," [Sunil says] "I thought 'patients' were just in the hospital." It’s jarring. But for Sunil, it’s interesting company. He’s wanting to talk to somebody. And he sees a friend in Gabriel, a kind of identification. You can connect to somebody — when you meet a person, you immediately know if you can connect or not. The relationship inspires you to open up. But how Sunil is opening up is a mysterious thing.
What is it about Dr. Paul Weston that allows Sunil to relax?
The first time when he saw Gabriel, he gives him respect and that’s very identifiable in Indian culture. That’s very obvious and that allows Sunil to feel comfortable. He’s stiff in the first episode because he doesn’t want to be there. He’s being difficult in front of his daughter-in-law and he wants to make things difficult.
Yes, it’s actually very funny.
There was humor. A lot of humor. Sometimes when you’re playing a very intense character, a disturbed character, you find other layers. That’s much more interesting to me, rather than just playing "intense." I find it too boring. My whole preparation was to bring elements of that, not just me suffering some kind of trauma. What is he doing with that trauma? How he’s trying to make things lighter for him and difficult for other people.
Why does Sunil enjoy being difficult?
He’s behaving like a child, like a kid. Like "Okay, you got me here, now deal with me." It’s a way of telling them, you know, I’m not comfortable here. It’s a very typical attitude with middle-class parents. I have seen many people I know — including my uncle, he always thinks the kids are at fault. They are doing something wrong with their lives, and we know better.
Paul lets him smoke, which is a special allowance.
It was in the script. That’s why I’m smoking this [gestures to the pouch of tobacco]. I left regular cigarettes behind, I don’t enjoy them anymore. This is very typical in Calcutta, people do that, all their life they’ll smoke self-rolled cigarettes. I celebrate it. People here will see me rolling it and they’ll say, sort of impatiently, "Why don’t you just take out a cigarette from a package and smoke it?" I say, "I like it. I’ve gotten good at it. It’s a kind of ritual." Now I can roll a cigarette on a motorcycle; you become easy with it.
Do you think that Sunil is attracted to Aran’s wife?
Oh, let the season tell you He’s fascinated.
What fascinates him?
Playing this woman thing so openly. It’s not very well-received in India to be that flamboyant. You celebrate as a woman, but this is not a celebration, this is more of a showing off, a trying to attract people in the wrong way, with your physicality. That’s his problem, that in this family that should not happen. He has his own condition and his own rules for etiquette and he doesn’t get it from daughter-in-law.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you read about mourning?
First my concern was to explore him emotionally. This is the first time I thought that whatever experience I had in my life had fallen short. So you try different things. The last three episodes I just listened to one Indian song over and over, which just put me in this mental state; it takes you in a different space completely.
Have you ever been in therapy?
Once, yeah. I was going through a crisis long back. Fifteen years back. That was the biggest crisis I’d ever been through. I never used to feel like anything in the world could take me away from my work. The kind of involvement I have. But then something happened and I was completely like, the ground shifts from beneath your feet. I didn’t know what to do and I could not bear myself. I became a very pathetic creature.
Yeah, it is! But those experiences make you learn so many things. If you deal with it properly you don’t repeat those things. I was the kind of person who was obsessed with relationships. For me, it was very important [to have] relationships — romantic, friendships, everything. I had this kind of feeling that two people should be one. This kind of need to become one. So I went through a crisis and I didn’t know what to do and I was not being able to bear myself, so suddenly I went to a doctor. I saw one [advertised] in the market in India and I went in there and I said, "Do something with me." She talked to me for a little bit and gave me some medicines, which I did not like. I took them, but they affected me very temporarily and then when the effect went away I would become more miserable than before. So I didn’t use it and I never went to her again, because she was trying to talk me out from that. I said "No, this kind of talking I can do for myself." I never felt the need to go back.
Do you think the therapy is working for Sunil?
In some way, it is working; in some ways, it’s not. At the end, we come to know whether it is or isn’t.