Diversity on television is sort of my “issue.” Anyone who regularly reads my column in WEEKLY, The Soapbox, has gotten an eyeful, on more than one occasion, of how all I want is to see more representation of America’s melting pot culture. I’ve often said that those of us who want to see ourselves reflected will cling to the smallest things. It’s why I notice every desi cabbie or doctor and why I forced myself to watch the series premiere of Outsourced. (I haven’t been able to stomach watching more than that. Despite my commitment to diverse TV, I draw the line at needless self-torture.) So I was thrilled, this week, when I learned that HBO’s In Treatment is featuring two Indian characters. Moreover, they’re not your Central Casting generic Indians — with stock, Apu accents and no regional markers. They’re Bengalis. Like my parents and extended family. I was thunderstruck.
I have no Premium channels. I don’t see the point, and I already watch more than enough TV. But, last night, I immediately ordered HBO and watched the In Treatment third season premiere.
I’m still sort of giddy.
I don’t know that I can even fully articulate how it felt to hear people speaking Bengali on TV. It was the same sensation I experienced when I saw The Namesake and got a haunting sense of my own family’s life being retold onscreen. So, it’s no surprise that The Namesake‘s author, Jhumpa Lahiri, helped conceive this story for In Treatment, and that Dr. Paul Weston’s (Gabriel Byrne) patient, Sunil, is played by one of the the film’s stars, Irrfan Khan. Khan’s Americanized son, Arun, is played by yet another strong character actor, Samrat Chakrabarti, whom I interviewed for a March feature in ABCDLady magazine.
Lahiri has a constant theme of generational gaps and the cultural divide therein in her work, and that’s definitely reflected in this arc. Sunil, a recent widower, has been brought to New York from Calcutta; he’s been “taken in” by his son and white daughter-in-law. Julia (Sonya Walger) thinks that giving Sunil a room in her house and a TV should be “enough,” and she doesn’t understand why he’s distant, uncommunicative and downright disrespectful of her house rules. She seems to think there’s a magic pill for everything, be it grief or family relations. Sunil comes from a society where therapy is for genuine, doorknob-polishing, lunatics, and it’s clear that Julia’s idea of responsibility to one’s elders isn’t the same as his. Arun, meanwhile, is sort of lost between the two, stuck playing mediator and unwilling to take agency for what’s going on. That makes sense, given how his own identity is so fractured…with him changing the pronunciation of his name to “Aaron,” and kind of letting his wife set the tone for the sessions with Dr. Weston.
What’s fascinating for me is that a) In 25 minutes, In Treatment managed a startlingly thought-provoking treatment of complex cultural issues and b) the viewer reaction, in some cases, lines up parallel to Julia and Sunil’s conflict. I was reading a few comments on some message boards, where some folks wholly sympathized with Julia and her struggle with her strange, somewhat creepy, father-in-law. Others, like myself, were drawn to Sunil’s wit and weariness and empathized with how his children seemed to be infantalizing him. It was funny: Every time Julia called him “Sunil,” I cringed. Calling an elder by their name — especially your father-in-law — is a serious no-no. It was in stark contrast to Arun’s use of “Baba.” That, to me, spoke volumes about the dynamics between the three characters.
And In Treatment is speaking to me, too.