By Diana Cheng
For Asian immigrants living in North America, a mixed-race marriage is no surprise. But the initial courtship of actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his therapist wife Emily V. Gordon is unique. So, it is only natural that the two put their heads together, write a screenplay about their real-life story and make a movie out of it.
We all need to thank the couple for doing just that, for they have created a wonderful film, one that speaks truths as it entertains, and brings to the forefront issues many immigrant families face, the difficulties of passing their cultural traditions and religion from one generation to the next, the persistence of parental expectations, and their dissolution.
Directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow, the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and sparked off a battle of distributorship. Finally, Amazon Studio won with a $12 million bid, theatrical release being one of the conditions.
Among many positives, the major strength of the movie is its authenticity. Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, an aspiring stand-up comedian, a profession, if it can be called a profession, is in the bottom rung of the career ladder according to Kumail’s parents, one that they absolutely abhor. In the movie, we learn that Kumail was born in Pakistan, as a child he followed his parents emigrating to the United States. As with all immigrant parents, they had sacrificed a lot to bring their family over to North America, and for one purpose only, to provide a better life for their children. They have given up hope for Kumail to be a doctor, or engineer, at least he should show some effort to get into law school. But a comedian? It’s utterly embarrassing.
At the same time, according to their cultural traditions, marriages are arranged. It has worked for them, and for all generations before them. But it looks like enforcing it on Kumail is a lost cause. Kumail happens to meet Emily one night at the comedy club while he is on stage. And the rest is the romantic saga they can one day tell their real-life grandchildren.
Emily is played by Zoe Kazan. Relating to a Pakistani guy she’d met in a comedy club sounds a little incredulous, but it’s real. The two soon find they have instant chemistry albeit incompatible in cultural mix. But that’s what makes life interesting.
Just as they are heading towards a blissful union, Emily discovers Kumail is not as open to his Pakistani parents about her as she is about him to her own parents. Well, just this bit already reflects a big cultural difference. Marrying outside of their Muslim faith and the Pakistani community marks Kumail an infidel. So, he has kept his secret love from his parents all along.
The snags soon turn tragic when Emily suddenly comes down with an unknown illness. Her doctors at the hospital urgently need to put her in a medically induced coma in order to do lifesaving treatment and surgery.
Herein lies the difficulty of the movie. How to sustain a courtship with a girl in a coma? Kumail has to spend quality time interacting with Emily’s parents in her absence. Kudos to everyone, the screenwriters, director, the actors, with veterans Holly Hunter as Emily’s emotionally volatile mom and Ray Romano as the relatively sensible dad, the comedy and the drama move on without hindrances.
The Big Sick is not just your ordinary romantic comedy. It has brought to the forefront realistic issues families face, as parenting never ends. Immigrants or not, the issues of parental expectations, inter-generational relationships, courtship and marriage, faith, illness, and personal crisis are universal. The film has effectively touched the human heart across cultural borders.
The Big Sick is screening at Landmark Lagoon Theatre in Minneapolis.