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Film Review: “The Big Sick”

Boy meets girl. Their visceral reaction to each other is one filled with hate. The boy is a stereotypical egotist. The female is sensitive and shy. Contemporary romantic comedy plots tend to paint the female as career driven and ambitious, and then the man as a carefree lay about. Initially the man irritates the woman with his flirty and boisterous nature, but later this teasing becomes attractive to the woman, and suddenly they are passionately in love. This is the strict structure of most romantic comedies, even in the 21st century. If you’re waiting for something refreshing and different, Judd Apatow’s production, “The Big Sick,” is your go-to movie. The man is not your conventional alpha male, in fact, he is quite the opposite. Nor does their relationship begin in a traditional manner. And despite their apparent ordinariness, the personalities of the main characters makes for a charming and giddy movie.

The movie is based on the true story of Pakistani American Kumail Nanjiani (who plays a younger version of himself) and his wife, Emily V Gordon (Zoe Kazan). Nanjiani is a struggling Chicago-based stand up comedian who falls in love with an aspiring therapist, Emily. Unfortunately for the couple, Nanjiani’s conservative family has aspirations for Nanjiani’s to marry a Muslim Pakistani woman. This leaves Nanjiani in a difficult spot where he has to choose between family and the love of his life. The plot climaxes when Emily winds up with a serious infection and ends up in a medically induced coma and Nanjiani is left pining for more time to spend with her. During her time of illness, Nanjiani is forced to interact with Emily’s parents, and here is where we see the contrast between East and West, and some of the most adorable moments of the movie. While this plot may initially seem cliche, its comic approach to the exploration of children born in traditional families is unique for a romantic comedy. Not only does it resonate across cultures, but its quirky characters make it relatable.

We immediately fall in love with the skittish beginnings of the relationship and with the cherubic Emily and sheepish Nanjiani. Apatow cleverly replaces Emily’s presence from the movie (while she is in a coma) with that of her parents. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry. While Emily is absent as for a large portion of the plot, we are reminded of her through her mother’s eccentricity and her father’s playful nature.

While the movie leaves us giggling or at times even roaring with laughter, it conveys ideas about clashing cultures and associated practices. Bollywood actor Anupam Kher plays Nanjiani’s father, a vivacious and endearing man. Zenobia Shroff plays his mother, Sharmeen, who is a controlling but deeply devoted lady. Apatow interestingly conveys the clash of East and West through the characters of Nanjiani’s parents, and the recurring dinner table scenes in the movie. His parents, who converse in fluent English, dress in the traditional Pakistani attire, “shalwar kameez.” This demonstrates that his parents are attached to their Pakistani culture even though they live in the United States.

Nanjiani attempts to highlight his parents as the stereotypical Pakistani parents who embrace conservative values. For example, his parents accept his career choice as a comedian, but with discomfort–they instead yearn for their son to be a renowned lawyer. This is consistent with conventional South Asian ideas about a hierarchy of admirable professions, which are underscored in the movie as well.

In one scene, Nanjiani’s mom explicitly states that her largest priority is her son’s marriage and insists that it be to a Muslim girl. The stress is specifically on the institute of arranged marriage.  There are hints of arranged marriage being satirized, for example, when the girls are said to “be booked and unavailable for appointments.” However, this treads on sensitive ground. To an extent, this technique is successful in elucidating the flaws of arranged marriage. The fact that women have to be “booked” gives the impression that the Pakistani approach to marriage is formal, and almost business-like. This undermines intrinsic importance of a union, which we would ideally desire to be based on mutual love, respect and compassion.  

Unfortunately, in the instance where a “candidate” (Vella Lovell) begins to express her distaste of the process of arranged marriage, it seems superficial. The movie focused on Nanjiani and his struggle with arranged marriage, whereas it could have done a more thorough job in exposing the impact it has on Eastern women, and how they are objectified and degraded in the process of it.

Perhaps Apatow could have also explored the motivations Pakistani parents have for supporting arranged marriage. Is it because they are protective of their children and assume they are incapable of making informed decisions themselves? Is it because they are insecure about their culture and its survival in the world? Is it because their religion is the basis of their identity? This would have been an engaging angle to take, especially since a large majority of the audience is unaware of the Pakistani culture.

Nanjiani also does a great job in portraying the struggle with identity that children with Eastern parents but a Western upbringing face. There is a particularly revelatory moment when Nanjiani expresses concern over which culture should form his identity. Nanjiani suggests that it is environment that shapes one’s understanding of culture, where in his case he finds himself defying Pakistani values’by not performing prayers, becoming a stand-up-comedian, or falling in love with a white woman.  

The rapturous moments of laughter in the movie distract us from the undertones of critique of American culture present in the movie. Nanjiani’s need to clarify that he isn’t a ‘terrorist’ or a member of the ISIS makes us question whether the America we hear of–the harbinger of human rights and acceptance – has really progressed from racist and stereotypical values;. The movie also underscores the cultural insensitivity of the United States. In one instance Emily asks Nanjiani what his parents think of her. This simple gesture goes a long way in illuminating the presumptuous nature of members of the Western world–where it is almost a given that children’s relationships with their parents are intimate and open, and further, that conservatism is rare, or even absent.

Perhaps my biggest critique of “The Big Sick” is that while it presents the opportunity to scrutinize all the aforementioned areas (cultural clashes and the institute of arranged marriage), it doesn’t seize them. Rather, Nanjiani glosses over these ideas without offering a solution in the end. We are left in want of more answers: Do Nanjiani’s parents ever reconcile with him? Do we have to make choices between romantic love and love for our parents in cases such as these? Is there any compromise?

In spite of all this, Nanjiani, with his messy apartment, hazy future plans and at times, awkward jokes, wins over our hearts. He is no alpha male, and this is not a cliched romantic comedy.

“The Big Sick” exposes to us what love is; it is pure. It is messy. It is painful. It is passionate. But most of all, it is a winner.