Premiered at the Sundance festival in January 2017, bought by Amazon Studios for $12 million, and hailed as best romantic comedy after Knocked Up, The Big Sick has generated an unprecedented level of media frenzy. And for good reason, given the film’s realism (it’s an autobiography), high production value, powerful acting, and political resonance in post-9/11 America.
Cultural anxieties about sexual relationships outside race and religion have often framed the South Asian diasporic film and Television dramas: Mississippi Masala, Bhaji on the Beach, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Namesake, Master of None, Homecoming, and The Night Of. The readers will recall how the idea of ethno-communal “purity” caused the post-1947 rape and murder of thousands of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh women, the exile of Asians from Uganda, and the post-colonial social disciplining and control of women across South Asia and its diaspora.
The film is about a young Pakistani immigrant (played by Kumail Nanjiani) juggling tradition and his dreams for fitting into the millennial America: stand-up comedy instead of law, video games instead of religion, and marrying for love instead of arranged marriage. This delightful tour de force of a date movie takes a serious turn that provides ample drama of anxiety and angst. Part-time Uber driver and a wannabe stand-up comedian Nanjiani is terrified of talking about his love for Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) to his conservative Muslim parents who are busy matchmaking for him with hopeful Pakistani girls. Emily, who is sick with a mysterious infection, is put into a medically-induced coma. Nanjiani and her parents wait in a hospital vigil. While this “dance of seduction” between the brown suitor and the white middle-age couple is charming, as is the nuanced unfolding of their characters, it is disappointing to see a unidimensional caricature of Nanjiani’s family: Frozen in their dining room, they fume at the disobedient Kumail, spouting a limited set of phrases around arranged marriages, the Quran, and mutton biriyani.
Unlike in My Beautiful Laundrette and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where the Pakistani characters are given a layered portrayal, The Big Sick shows them as forever troubled, anxious, and crisis-ridden. Many in the South Asian audiences are disappointed with the film’s sexual politics that replicates that of the latest spate of TV dramas showing brown men going crazy over white women, leading to the erasure of brown women from the screen.
Compared to the Pakistani family, Emily’s mother is a feisty fighter: she searches on the net for the best treatment for her daughter, forces her husband to move their daughter to another hospital, and shouts down a racist Islamophobic heckler during one of Kumail’s stand-up comedy shows (the white woman coming to the rescue of a brown man!).
Emily’s father is an Ivy-league educated scientist, who, worn out by life’s challenges, shares his marital problems with Nanjiani. As the exceptionally talented comic, Kumail fits the stereotype of a non-white character trapped in vexing circumstances, trying to make other people (read white) happy, solving, in this case, Emily parents’ existential crisis.
However, with its bold and wholesome representation of a brown leading man at a time when South Asian characters are still marginalized in mainstream American cinema, the film pushes the boundaries. In the 2017 watershed year of the Oscars acclaimed to be the most diverse ever—with seven acting nominees from ethnic minority backgrounds, four best picture nominees about non-white stories, and the best picture win for Moonlight— symbolizes the essence of American multicultural ethos and a perfect “rejoinder to Trump’s travel ban.”