If we’re forced to deal with Woke Katy Perry, Ghost in the Shell, and Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad all in the same year, then surely we deserve a movie to balance things out. The Big Sick is that movie. Starring Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano, The Big Sick is a smart, nuanced portrayal of immigration disguised as a harmless rom-com.
The film tells the true story of how Nanjiani, the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants, and his wife, Emily V. Gordon (Kazan), a white girl from North Carolina, met and fell in love in Chicago (the couple wrote the screenplay together). Before they’ve even said “I love you,” Emily gets mysteriously sick and is forced into a medically induced coma. It’s an original and enjoyable storyline, but when a president’s travel ban reaches the Supreme Court, a movie about a funny immigrant falling in love in America is a political statement on its own.
Yet it’s more than that. The movie places a Pakistani immigrant family at the center of the movie, thereby fleshing out their experiences in America, while also providing these immigrant characters with vivid backgrounds that let us view them as people rather than tokens or lessons.
“It’s not all about that they are Muslim or that they are immigrants,” Michael Showalter, the movie’s director, told Fusion. “That happens to be their situation, but there are lots of things about them that are very recognizable,” whether it’s an inside joke or how the characters react to tragedy.
Kumail’s cultural background informs every aspect of his very American life, including his relationship with Emily. Kumail seduces Emily by writing her name in Urdu on a napkin, but then takes her home to watch Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr. Phibe. The couple actually breaks up before Emily falls ill because she discovers a cigar box full of headshots of Pakistani women his parents want him to marry; Emily is hurt, and when Kumail admits this cultural difference means there’s no future for them as a couple, she leaves him. An arranged marriage is important to Kumail’s parents, who gave up everything so their son could grow up in America. All they ask in return is that he be a “good Muslim boy and marry a Pakistani girl.”
So, at every family meal, eligible Pakistani women just happen to drop by. While it would be easy to turn these minor characters into caricatures, they have more agency than many white leading women in larger blockbusters. The best example is Kadhija, played by Vella Lovell, who meets Kumail twice only to be rejected because he doesn’t want to be in an arranged marriage with anybody. She, however, cannot escape the situation. It’s a raw moment exposing the immigrant paradox: Even while standing on the lawn of her suburban Chicago family home, she doesn’t have the same power of refusal as her male peer does.
Zoe Kazan mentioned this sequence as one small example of the larger importance of diverse narratives: “What kind of stories could you tell if you extend past your tiny circle of comfort?” Showalter agreed that these women could’ve been “there for you to laugh at as part of disastrous dates” that the male lead will go on, in the classic rom-com construction. “But the women that Kumail is going on these dates with are terrific,” he said. “They’re different, they’re smart, interesting and not anything like we assume they’re like. They’re just people.”
When Kumail first admits to his brother, Naveed, that he is dating a white woman, Naveed is adamantly against it. Naveed himself had an arranged marriage, and his wife is now his “best friend.” The film allows space for each brother’s story to exist, suggesting there is no correct way to deal with this cultural dilemma.
At the same time, Kumail meets Naveed at the batting cages; Naveed is “the brown Sammy Sosa.” Naveed tells Kumail to grow a beard like him so he can look more Muslim, all the while being entirely decked out in Cubs gear. As Showalter explains: “No one in this movie is good or bad.” Kumail and Naveed are able to be American and Muslim simultaneously without being either threatening or sanitized.
Yet the film doesn’t shy away from cultural tensions and hostility towards immigrants. When Emily’s parents watch one of Kumail’s comedy shows, a white frat bro shouts, “Go back to ISIS!” and Emily’s mother dutifully fights back: “You want ISIS to have more people?” This scene gifts us perhaps the first great 9/11 joke, but it’s also a spine-chilling moment, recognizable to almost all immigrants in America.
When Kumail finally decides to come clean about his white American girlfriend to his parents, he asks them: “Why did we come here [to America] and pretend like we’re still back there?” It’s the same tension that Aziz Ansari explored in the “Religion” episode of his Netflix series Master of None, when he admits to his parents that he eats pork. The Big Sick spins this into a wider discussion of how the expectations of an ancient culture halfway around the world clash with reality.
The most refreshing part of the film is that it remains a very funny rom-com. “It’s not a story about how Kumail leaves his culture behind and assimilates,” Showalter said. “But we aren’t trying to educate the world as to what it’s like to be a Muslim either.”
Even while co-writing a screenplay, the real Kumail and Emily were forced to read their own experience through the eyes of someone else, a key aspect of understanding diversity. “I would write a scene, and she would write a scene, and we’d say, ‘That’s not how I experienced it,’” Kumail explained. It’s a microcosm of what any constructive conversation about cultural differences should look like.
Master of None and Hasan Minahj’s recent Netflix comedy special, “Homecoming King,” have helped normalize the idea that one’s ethnic background, religion, and sexual orientation are just another aspect of a character’s life. The Big Sick is the latest example of politically aware brown men telling stories on television that fly in the face of the infuriating notion of “color blindness,” while deepening depictions of the American immigrant experience.