The romantic comedy “The Big Sick” has been almost universally praised as a heartfelt revival of a once-tired genre.

Based on the true story of its writers, Kumail Nanjiani (who also stars) and Emily V. Gordon, the film sees the star couple navigating an illness (as the title implies) while also dealing with their parents’ cultural differences — Nanjiani’s character’s parents want him to have an arranged marriage, and her parents are uneasy with their daughter dating a Pakistani-American.

Amid the film’s many glowing reviews are also critiques of how the movie fits into Hollywood norms.

How does “The Big Sick” navigate issues not usually handled in romantic comedies, and what makes it such a hit with viewers and critics?

Guests

  • John Horn Host, "The Frame" on KPCC; @jghorn
  • Amil Niazi Editor and culture writer for VICE
  • Nihal Krishan Political reporter, Global Competition Review

A Reflection On The Film

The Big Sick makes strides in rom com diversity, but ultimately lets down South Asian women, writes our intern, Naba Khan

I went to see “The Big Sick” with my Pakistani-American family — my mom, my dad and my younger brother. We love movies, especially movies with brown people in them. We tend to brace for the worst, but we went into this one less skeptical than usual. After all, it was co-written by a real brown Muslim guy about his real life!

The movie is funny, well-written and interesting. Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily’s (Zoe Kazan) relationship is developed with just the right amount of montage. There are moments that feel incredibly real, and Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) are fleshed out in a nuanced, deeply human way.

So it was especially disappointing to see that Pakistani-American women characters in the film are flat and unrelatable.

Among the least relatable is Kumail’s mother, Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), who tries tirelessly to set him up to marry a Pakistani girl. That’s the only window we have into her personality — we learn little else about her. By comparison, we learn a lot about Emily’s mom: there’s a scene late in the movie where she holds Kumail’s face as she says goodbye, a scene that is emotional and raw and authentic. Contrast that with Kumail’s mom, who never really hugs him. No hugging, no touching. Our culture emphasizes affection towards and from parents, and this absence in the movie is striking. This character — with her caricatured obsession with marriage, lack of affection, and a complete inability or willingness to “get” anything about Kumail’s life beyond the family dining room table — flies in the face of all Pakistani-American moms I know. She has been referred to as Kumail’s “formidable mother” in reviews, which only further cements the idea that brown women characters are unable to see past the cultural norms of their “strict Muslim clan.”

The multiple Pakistani women desperate to marry Kumail are nothing short of cringe-worthy. They show up at his family dinners in Pakistani outfits typically reserved for fancy parties. They are heavily accented despite having lived in America for years. They are all frantic for Kumail to marry them. In short, they are punch lines.

The most realistic of the women is Khadija (half white and half African-American Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actress Vella Lovell who says that she is frequently mistaken as South Asian). Lovell gets a little more screen time than the rest, but is still desperate, sad, and sporting what is (quite frankly) a ridiculous fake accent. The brown women in this movie are shown as far more traditional then Kumail, his brother and even his bomber jacket-wearing dad. Because of this, the women come off as out-of-touch weirdos.

I come from a family of actual Muslims, full of actual Muslim women. They are art directors and lawyers, writers and pastry chefs, doctors and advocates. Some date and some are married to people they met without their parents; some wear shalwar kameez occasionally and some only own one. Many of them go to the mosque and spend time with their parents and still manage to live a normal American life, because they are American.

It’s hard to explain why the brown women in the film matter when the story is based on Kumail’s relationship with his real wife. I didn’t expect him to fall in love with anyone other than Emily or have a perfectly open and happy relationship with his parents, but that doesn’t mean that all those brown women, including his mother, had to be devoid of relatability. There is no way that every real brown woman in Kumail’s life was detached from the world, and his choice to show them that way makes a difference. The thing is, when your life is rarely reflected in media, the representation of anything like it, especially on the big screen, becomes the assumption.

The first time I saw someone like me in a popular movie, I was 10 and at a friend’s house. Someone turned on Bend it Like Beckham. As we watched Jess battle Sikh parents who wouldn’t let her play sports, I noticed my friends glancing over at me. It took a lot of explaining that no, my parents don’t pressure me to just get married and cook as a life goal and yes, I am allowed to play soccer I just don’t because I’m terrible at it before their pitying looks went away. It didn’t matter that Jess isn’t even Muslim, or that her parents eventually do accept her athleticism. My friends had never seen a movie with a family that looked like mine, and this was their first lens into anything remotely like my family’s culture.

Nanjiani said in an interview with The New Yorker that he doesn’t think there are enough “normal” Muslims in media. He thinks we “need Muslim characters who, like, go to Six Flags and eat ice cream.” Why, then, are all of the brown women in this movie so abnormal?

Ultimately, it’s very cool that there’s a brown rom-com star. And I know that it’s not entirely fair to critique one movie for not being an accurate reflection of all South Asians. But this is one of the only mainstream movies out there involving Pakistani-American women, family and culture, and we still have no versions of ourselves on screen who just go to Six Flags and eat ice cream.

 

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