The Big Sick is a 2016 romantic comedy that focuses on the story Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American comedian based in Chicago who falls in love with an American woman named Emily Gardner. Written as an autobiographical comedy, which he co-wrote with his wife, Emily Vance Gordon, the movie follows Kumail’s struggle with his own identity and his family’s expectations of how to live his life and Kumail’s Muslim and Pakistani parents object to their unorthodox relationship.
The significance of a Hollywood movie starring a Pakistani as its lead whose character happens to play a young Muslim comedian finding his voice amidst post 9/11 America where Islamophobia hasn’t really left the movie screens, or the minds of the American populace speaks volumes for both the quality and quantity of meaningful roles available to minorities, especially South Asian minorities. With casting directors in Hollywood still resorting to medieval ways to appear inclusive, for e.g. Disney’s live action Aladdin has recently come under fire for “browning up” white actors to play lesser roles in the movie, The Big Sick is important because representation matters.
Especially real to life representation and not the stereotypical terrorist Arab/Muslim caricature we normally see in Hollywood, in the form of movies such as Zero Dark Thirty, which provoked extremely anti Muslim sentiments and movies like The Dictator, which show how set in stone portrayals of any “brown” person really can be. The Big Sick has dealt with sensitive issues such as their casting choices and how we see the differences in content when it is actually produced from the point of view of someone who has the authority to speak on and represent their own culture and tradition.
On the whole, The Big Sick has been met with much critical acclaim, with more than 15 nominations in 2018. The hype is understandable as the movie deals with a lot of stereotypes and cultural baggage that is attached to South Asians and especially South Asian Muslims; with a mildly accurate representation of the complex struggles faced in interracial relationships and how Kumail hid his relationship from his parents because he was so preoccupied with the inevitable fear that he would pay a far greater (cultural) price than his white counterpart. The cultural divide shown is further strengthened by the fact that Emily’s white parents have no qualms about their only daughter dating a Pakistani/Muslim who they hadn’t initially met.
The story also revolves around Kumail’s struggle with Islam, which is not only the religion he was born into but also one that is known for ostracizing any members who choose to opt out of it. Throughout the movie we see Kumail hide and lie about him being a practicing Muslim and towards the end he resorts to the ultimate sin which is to “come out” to his parents which leaves them both confused and angry. This is one conversation that no South Asian child would dare start with their parents, yet the movie tackles this sensitive topic in a very gentle and realistic way since the story doesn’t end with a happy ending and we see Kumail leave for New York not entirely having made amends with his parents, especially his mother.
One thing that the movie does repeatedly is bring up these horribly taboo conversations and topics for South Asians that is definitely a step in the right direction. For example, Kumail happens to be a Pakistani man; however he is not what you would expect. He has an effeminate demeanor, he is in touch with his emotions and he is not an aggressive or macho man. Nor does he feel the need to be. Kumail is also very open with his sexuality and is shown sleeping with Emily on the first date and eventually falling in love with her as well. Casual dating is frowned upon and even met with extreme punishment in the Pakistani/Muslim community where premarital sex is a sin and a crime.
Which bring us to the most important thing the movie failed to be mindful of; the portrayal of the Pakistani/American woman, whether it was Kumail’s pushy mother, his timid sister-in-law, Fatimah, who plays the role of the good Muslim girl and could have just as easily not been a part of the film and the long list of prospective Pakistani brides that “dropped by” at the planning of Kumail’s mother who is shown hell bent on setting him up with a “good, Pakistani/Muslim girl.” This was the part a lot of South-Asian women could have related to (including myself), however all we get is a montage of over the top caricatures of women one would assume have lived in the states nearly as long as our lead.
Throughout the movie, we do not see a hint of self-expression from the Pakistani girls, they all are heavily accented; only ever wear shalwar kameez and are only ever presented as a joke. Kumail is seen annoyed by them and throws their headshots in a tin cigar box, and to appease his white girlfriend who breaks up with him because he had kept their relationship a secret from his family, he burns the photos and bring the cremated remains to Emily.
Through this one seemingly sweet gesture, Kumail isn’t just showing Emily his commitment, he is basically telling her that no brown woman is good enough as compared to her because Emily has a life; she is erratic and funny and has a fully formed personality, she is independent and leaves Kumail as soon as she realizes he might not be as serious as she is.
The women are however, shown to be vying for Kumail’s attention. If the lead brown guy can have aspirations and dreams to be a comedian and live his life the way he wants, why are the brown women not allowed to do the same? They appear to have an archaic desire to just get married and not be the “bad apple at the bottom of the apple bucket.” So for them any guy is good as long as he’s a Pakistani, even if he is just a comedian. The Pakistani women barely get any important screen time and when they do, they are paraded around as if they are stupid.
A disappointing scene is where Zubaida, comes to meet the family and she sports the worst Pakistani/Indian accent ever. She tries to impress Kumail by quoting his favourite show, The X-files and is shown making a fool out of herself. The only girl that gets any lines worth having is Khadija, who is shown as an independent person with a charming personality at first, but then she breaks down when Kumail rejects her. What’s more interesting is that the only Pakistani woman who gets the most screen time is played by Vella Lovell (Khadija) who is in fact half black and half white, who dons a Pakistani accent and was casted because she “passes” as South Asian.
There is a lot of “Othering” in the movie where Kumail is not only seen cut off from his Pakistani roots, but also his Muslim ones. The problem does not lie with the fact that he is a secular person; the problem is that it is assumed that secular Muslims are more vibrant as compared to the ones who go to the mosque, who are presented as extremists or terrorists. It shows a certain secular perspective and in a way dismisses all practicing Pakistani Muslims as not being progressive enough to be highlighted in Hollywood.
All in all, The Big Sick, although better than many others, still perpetuates a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about certain marginalized, misrepresented and underrepresented identities and even parts of the entire South-Asian experience. The intentional white-washing of the struggles of our male lead “with a 1400 year old culture” is also an incomplete narrative since South Asian women have been silenced through the pretence of comedy. This is unfortunate because this movie was a great opportunity to give South-Asian women a voice and an outlet for them to be seen.