The Big Sick, a cross-culture romantic comedy based on actual events, breaks new ground by casting a brown-skinned Pakistani-American in a lead role in a movie produced and widely screened in the United States. Acquired by Amazon Studios for $12 million after a bidding war at Sundance film festival, the film has already grossed over $25 million so far.
“The Big Sick” is based on the life of HBO's "Silicon Valley" star Kumail Nanjiani, 39, who plays himself. A Pakistani American man, a part-time Uber driver struggling to succeed as a stand-up comic in Chicago, Kumail notices a heckler named Emily (Zoe Kazan), during one of his performances. Thus begins a relationship characterized by a series of emotional highs and lows with a lot of laughter in between.
Co-written with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the romantic comedy (romcom) is a somewhat fictionalized account of the first year of their relationship, when a sudden medical crisis forces her to be put in a medically-induced coma for several days.
Kumail meets Emily's parents when they come to Chicago to care for their daughter in hospital. After some initial hesitation, Emily's parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) hit it off with Kumail. When Emily's father asks Nanjiani what he thought of the 911, the comedian responds: "It was tragic. We lost 19 of our best men" and then smiles, thus breaking the ice between the two.
Nanjiani says that "I feel more Pakistani than I have in the last 10 years". "I feel way more defined by my ethnicity now," Nanjiani says. "If there's an ethnicity that is maligned and attacked and demonized ... I'm with you. I stand with you. Because it's unavoidable that people are seeing me a certain way, I kind of want to own it. I feel more Pakistani than I have in the last 10 years", he told USA Today.
Kumail has interspersed the movie with a running presentation on his country of birth that shows him singing the first few lines of Pakistan's national anthem out loud. Nanjiani also brings out his love of cricket and the fact that Pakistan has the world's largest contiguous farm irrigation system.
While Nanjiani repeatedly acknowledges his Pakistani-American identity, he's less certain about his religious identity. Brought up as a Shia Muslim, he even makes fun of the fact that his people still mourn the killings in the battle of Karbala that occurred 1400 years ago. Kumail tells his father (played by Anupam Kher) that he doesn't know what he believes.
The story line of The Big Sick is partly about Nanjiani’s refusal to accept an arranged marriage that his parents wished for him. It is a reasonable position but the way he does so demeans the Pakistani-American women who are introduced to him by his parents.
Kumail lacks the courage to tell his parents upfront that he wants no part of an arranged marriage, allowing the Pakistani-American women suitors to suffer the indignity of being paraded in front of him. The movie stereotypes these Pakistani-American women who are forced to speak in fake foreign accents even though they have lived in the US longer than Pakistan-born Kumail has.
Overall, it's fun to watch The Big Sick as a ground-breaking cross-culture romantic comedy with a Pakistani-American male lead.