The most enlightening moment in Michael Showalter’s poignant and heartfelt rom-com The Big Sick comes towards the end, when Kumail Nanjiani stands up to his family, after having revealed to them that he has fallen in love with a white woman, and categorically tells them all that he will not leave his family. In similar films about interracial relationships, this scene might have become melodramatic or even maudlin. In The Big Sick, it rings true with authenticity and earnestness.
The script, which actor and comedian Nanjiani co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon, is based on their real-life story. The title refers to a period where Emily was hospitalised and put into a medically-induced coma. During that process, Nanjiani got to know and grew close to her parents (Ray Romano, Holly Hunter), all the while being inducted himself into awkward arranged dates with young Pakistani women by his parents (Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher).
This isn’t a film about an identity crisis per se, but it’s very revealing of the two differing family dynamics. And thankfully, it’s very even-handed in its treatment of both. The film doesn’t choose sides, nor does it have any agenda. It is simply about a man who loves, be it his girlfriend, family and stand-up career. And he doesn’t necessarily want to put one over the other.
The Big Sick’s most refreshing contribution is in normalising Pakistan for American audiences
Nanjiani is not your conventional rom-com hero, because when has ‘someone like him’ ever been allowed to be a leading man? However, it takes just a few lines and one is completely taken by his charm. And how often does one get to see shots of Pakistan in a mainstream film without any underlying ominous music? It’s very refreshing and, admittedly, surprising to see. In fact, often the film acts as a ‘Pakistan 101’ lesson, especially now, given the times we live in and who is President of the United States. It re-introduces a country that still is, for many filmgoers, associated with negative headlines.
Showing a Pakistani family having dinner is very ordinary in itself, but also very effective in normalising a certain image one might have of Pakistanis and how they lead their inner lives. It’s also worth noting that this film comes at a time when South Asian artists around the globe are having a significant and very successful moment: Riz Ahmed, Priyanka Chopra, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, Vir Das, Mindy Kaling and now Kumail Nanjiani. They are all telling their stories in their own words.
It should also be noted that when the first trailer came out, there was a small outcry on social media about the perceived flimsy characterisation of the female South Asian characters. That is not the case here at all. These women, Nanjiani’s prospective brides, are real women with names, jobs, dreams. They are in no way put down for the sake of dumb jokes.
Seen in entirety, this will make much more sense, but the film is actually quite nuanced — after all, it finds the place for a killer 9/11 joke and has a memorable scene with a racist heckler, where Holly Hunter truly shines. The comedy and film world in general is all the better for Nanjiani and Gordon. And The Big Sick is a real gem.
Published in Dawn, ICON, June 11th, 2017