THE BIG SICK: FILM REVIEW
Initially, I had qualms about The Big Sick, as the film tells the story of a South Asian man falling in love with a white woman. The narrative seemed a little too familiar: man ends up choosing white woman over non-white women. However, Kumail Nanjiani’s aim to truthfully recount his own experiences and real-life relationship dispelled my initial hesitations. Through shaping the film from the standpoint of being the protagonist, Nanjiani is able to highlight issues that many People of Color (POC) can relate to and often don’t see on screen. Even the act of having a white narrator voice the film seems to act as commentary about the way many films that attempt to tell POC stories are told from a cringey white gaze. Kumail is authentic in staying true to his own split identities of coming from a traditional Pakistani family while growing up in America.
The Big Sick tells the real-life story of the relationship between Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) and his wife, Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan). Nanjiani is Pakistani. Gordon is white. The two meet in Chicago when Nanjiani performs stand-up at an open mic and Gordon is sitting in the audience. After a brief one-night stand, the two realize there's something deeper than day-after hookup hangxiety, and they begin dating. That is, until Emily finds a box containing pictures of women that Kumail’s parents have set him up with for a potential arranged marriage. To make matters worse, shortly after the breakup, Emily falls into a coma, forcing Nanjiani and her parents to not only cope with the uncertainty of her awakening, but also to deal with each other. Throughout the film, Nanjiani attempts to navigate his dual identity of being Pakistani-American, the potential death of his girlfriend, and what it means to be there for someone you love, even if the higher powers are telling you to let go.
Throughout Kumail’s relationship with Emily, his family’s desire for him to marry another Pakistani girl always weighs in the back of his mind. The contrast between Kuamil and Emily’s life is clear when Emily reveals to Kumail that in her early 20’s, she divorced a man she rushed into marriage with. Emily’s privilege of being able to accidentally marry someone and separate from them without much of a second thought, is in stark contrast to the immobility of Kumail’s conflict, in which he is constantly debating between two completely different definitions of marriage. For Kumail, the choice of one over the other is the deciding factor between the relationship between him and his family.
When Kumail eventually does tell his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) about Emily, they are unaccepting. In this pivotal scene, he asks his parents why they brought him to America if they didn’t want him to fully adapt to and adopt American culture. It’s an inevitable question, and an internalized conflict that many children of immigrant parents face. When my mom and I run into cultural barriers, she often says that she wonders what it would be like if she raised me and my sister in China instead. I think that for many immigrant parents, the harshness of these barriers aren’t fully realized until they actually undergo the experience of raising their children in a country they never claimed.
Similarly, when Emily finds out about the pictures of women in a box in Kumail’s bedroom, she, too, is unaccepting. However, Kumail initially reacts very casually. The prospect of arranged marriage has been a part of his life for so long that he doesn’t take his silly little box too seriously. Meanwhile, Emily has a mental breakdown, leading Kumail to realize the full force of the difference in their cultures. Emily reacts in a way that non-POC often do, by expressing frustration through asking the question: “Why didn’t you tell me? Did you not think I would have understood?” Questions like these inherently place blame on POC for not sharing certain parts of their identity. They take power away from those who embody marginalized identities, and instead direct power to the those who embody privilege. It’s not about you specifically not having the emotional capability to understand, Kumail tries to explain. It’s about a cultural sensitivity that is difficult to dissect and discuss, given the different ways our identities have shaped the way we see the world. Emily storms out, failing to transfer the blame from Kumail to her own blind spots.
There is no doubt that The Big Sick is a loveable film. Perhaps it comes from watching Kumail Nanjiani in a leading role of his own movie, or the “quirky” dynamic between Nanjiani and Emily. Perhaps it's watching Emily’s father (Ray Romano) awkwardly admit to Kumail before the two are supposed to go to bed that he cheated on Emily’s mom (Holly Hunter). Regardless, the film’s lovability acts as an intentional facade to the real issues at hand, ensuring that the viewer understands the complexity of having a multi-faceted American identity, while taking them on an amusing and emotional journey.
If you’re looking for a light-hearted movie in these heavy times, The Big Sick is the way to go, as Nanjiani ensures the film does not overdo its comedic charm or its message. Instead, The Big Sick expertly weaves in unique experiences that People of Color face growing up in the United States, that both contribute to the authenticity and relatability of the story, despite its dark premise.