June 13, 2021 6:42:11 am
Depicting the act of therapy on screen is a fraught exercise. It can be a mix of many things. Plain voyeuristic, as there’s almost nothing as pleasurable as watching troubled humans channelling our own confused feelings. Discomfiting, when the feelings cut too close to the bone and trigger uncomfortable thoughts. And sometimes plain therapeutic, managing to shed light on what we thought was an intractable problem.
Portrayed with authenticity and sensitivity, best practice therapy makes it possible for us to unwrap our deepest, darkest fears to a trained professional paid to do one of the hardest jobs in the world: listening without offering any judgements and facile solutions, and steering us towards a path which we didn’t know existed, or was hiding in plain sight.
Why then are therapists, on-the-couch counselling sessions, and people who bravely speak about their vulnerabilities, so often used to create low-rent laughter? This is especially true of Hindi cinema and desi shows. It can’t be that hard to reach out to real-life practitioners to take advise on how ethical and personal boundaries are put in place, and how sessions are conducted. But, perhaps, it’s easier to come up with cringeworthy sequences, without realising just how problematic it all can be: one of the clunkiest portions of the otherwise eminently watchable The Family Man: Season 2 comes from a troubled marriage being “dealt with” by a therapist.
In terms of accurate representation, the HBO show In Treatment, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, scores high. The dishy Gabriel Byrne plays a committed psychoanalyst working with a wide range of “patients”, and while the overall flavour is that of your standard TV show broken up in 25 minute segments, the four-part series occasionally achieves surprising depth.
One of Byrne’s most interesting clients is Sunil Sanyal, middle-aged, greying, reluctant immigrant to America, played by the inimitable Irrfan Khan. Through seven episodes in Season 3, which aired towards the end of 2010, the determinedly Bengali Sanyal, whose “Brahmin” antecedents are aired in a decidedly uncomfortable in-your-face fashion, establishes a spiky-turned-cordial relationship with his therapist.
There are the usual strokes — ugly racism on the subway, set-in-his-ways widower struggling to come to terms with old and new grief, and a domineering white American daughter-in-law. But Sunil is given intriguing layers, an unrequited romance in his undergraduate days, a dutiful marriage to a suitable girl, and an unhealthy obsession with his son’s wife, who claims that his unblinking gaze makes her uncomfortable.
Irrfan has memorably played a Bengali immigrant to the promised land before, in Mira Nair’s marvellous The Namesake (2006). But there are no similarities between that man, eager to make a new life and wholly in love with his new wife, and this one, caged in a complex bundle of prejudice and unresolved feelings. That was a full-length feature. This is a show. All Irrfan gets to play with is a room, a sofa, and a small diary, in which he keeps his mementos. But as ever, he needed no props for a character to bloom; as ever, he was enough unto himself.
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