Culture

Inside The Romance And Race Issues Of ‘The Big Sick’ With Kumail Nanjiani And Emily V. Gordon

"Just because you think kebabs are good doesn’t mean you’re not racist."

The Big Sick

You know that thing about couples finishing what the other is saying? Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon go a bit further. They seem to speak exclusively in run-on sentences, piling ideas and wisecracks and mutual affection into teetering constructions that inevitably collapse into laughter.

Their film, The Big Sick, is the cinematic equivalent of a tesseract; it’s much bigger on the inside than it seems from the outside. It would have to be, to accommodate its enormous heart. It’s the tale of how Nanjiani and Gordon fell in and out of love just as she fell ill — a romance set against the backdrop of Nanjiani’s parents’ increasingly frenetic attempts to arrange a marriage for him. His mother and father are devout Muslims; he’s unsure of what he believes but certain where his heart lies, and an emotional reckoning roils on the horizon.

It sounds like the sort of idea to come out of a workshop, but all this really happened. The couple wrote the film together (Zoe Kazan plays Emily on screen, while Nanjiani plays himself), and are in furious agreement that the writing was the most intense part of the film’s five-year journey from page to cinema — re-living the tumultuous events of their courtship over and over, whittling history into a story.

“The first couple of drafts were a more accurate ‘this is what happened to us’ take, and those would have made a terrible movie!” Gordon says. “That was when we worked through and re-lived how scary and upsetting a lot of this stuff was.”

For her, that “stuff” was a rare condition called adult-onset Still’s disease, a diagnosis made only after Gordon had spent eight days in an induced coma. Adding that to the cultural friction with Nanjiani’s upbringing makes a heavy backdrop for a romantic comedy, but a nice indicator of the tonal tightrope The Big Sick walks. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, the sort of film that can make you cry on multiple occasions and also contain the best 9-11 joke of all time (Seriously. Of all time).

No Hugging, No Learning

Nanjiani and Gordon are in Melbourne to promote the film, and they’re in fine form. His desiccated wit perfectly complements her infectious enthusiasm. The couple actually just celebrated the 10th anniversary of their wedding, which took place just three months after Gordon left hospital.

“I was talking to my parents and they were like, ‘Well, this white woman that you found, what are you going to do with her?'” Nanjiani says. “We changed our lives completely in such a short time. We both quit our jobs, moved to New York, got married – it was insane.”

“He didn’t even propose,” Gordon says, shaking her head in mock disappointment. “We literally went ‘Oh my god, let’s get married’ – and then we got married.”

The Big Sick is overflowing with love stories — the on-screen Kumail and Emily’s, twice over; Emily’s parents’ relationship; and the sweet, quiet, questing sort of love they share with the stranger by their daughter’s hospital bed. It’s a small miracle that each of these is given equal care and attention. It’s more than an anchor amid the pain, it’s the tale of a family growing roots, even if they don’t know it at the time. The only story not present in the film is that of Kumail’s parents and Emily, and it turns out that was purposefully avoided.

“We decided not to have that because we didn’t want any of the stories to be tied up fully, we wanted to leave all of them a little open-ended. The family reconciliation would have been a disservice to the challenges we faced,” Nanjiani says (“Yeah, that hug-and-learn kinda thing,” Gordon interjects).

“This is something we’ll probably work on for the rest of our lives.”

“For immigrants and their kids, it’s a really challenging thing, and at least for my case, those issues are never fully resolved. And so we wanted to show that these things aren’t easy. There’s still love there and my parents and I want to make it work, but it’s not just ‘It’s done and it’s fixed’. This is something we’ll probably work on for the rest of our lives.”

It turns out that Gordon only met Nanjiani’s parents after they were married, and she beams with the recollection. “The reality was that they embraced me very quickly and were very lovely to me, from the start. They were not happy with you so much,” she says, nodding in her husband’s direction, “but they were very lovely with me.”

Nanjiani offers a pained grin in response. “They actually went out of their way to be extra nice to Emily because they understood that their disappointment with me had nothing to do with her,” he says. “I really thought that I would get kicked out of the family — it’s still something we deal with, but the fact that they decided to try and make it work was surprising to me, because I hadn’t given them enough credit.”

“Jordan Peele Is Against Interracial Relationships”

It’s been a banner year for films exploring the nuances and complexity of cross-cultural relationships. 2017 has already given us Jordan Peele’s superb Get Out, and The Big Sick is a welcome addition to the list. So why do Gordon and Nanjiani think it’s such fertile territory to explore?

“Being compared to that movie in any capacity is flattering,” Gordon says. “Get Out did a great job of using a trope that we are familiar with to explore that territory. Obviously racism is still a huge issue, and it’s interesting that there are some people who see Get Out and think that there shouldn’t be interracial relationships — and obviously that’s not what Jordan Peele intended …”

Nanjiani interrupts, one eyebrow raised in amusement. “Nope. That’s not what he intended, that there should not be interracial relationships. I haven’t talked to him about it, but I think that’s safe to say.”

Gordon has dissolved into laughter at this point. “I don’t know where I was going with this,” she gasps.

“Just because you think kebabs are good doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”

“Just that Jordan Peele was against interracial relationships,” Nanjiani says, dry as ever. “It’s interesting. I don’t know how it is here, but in America there are many, many people who marry someone from a different culture or a different race, but in pop culture depictions of it are pretty rare. There have been a few things, like Loving…”

“… But that’s specifically about an interracial relationship,” Gordon continues. “In America when someone is Desi or something that’s the entirety of their character. And, by the way, I’ve seen this in other movies and I do appreciate it, but I didn’t want a scene in our movie where they approach each other and are like ‘This is food from my country!’. Even though that’s part of a relationship when you’re exploring each other’s culture, we didn’t want to have that scene.”

It’s a hugely refreshing approach, particularly when the ready availability of ethnic cuisine is seen as a shorthand for multiculturalism — something that happens all too often in Australia. Nanjiani laughs in approval, and produces a perfectly pithy summation. “Just because you think kebabs are good doesn’t mean you’re not racist,” he says.

For Weddings, And A Reproval

While The Big Sick has been met with near-universal acclaim, there has been some valid criticism. Jezebel ran an article excoriating the trope of brown men falling in love with white women onscreen, a piece that Nanjiani and Gordon have both read.

“I think the tough thing is that because there aren’t that many US pop culture examples of stories from South Asian perspectives, each story has all this pressure on it to represent the South Asian experience, when truly there is no such thing,” Nanjiani says. “There’s no monolithic South Asian experience, and that’s why I think you need more…”

“… Stories from South Asian men, South Asian women…” Gordon breaks in.

“… Or gay South Asians,” Nanjiani finishes. “I think it comes from a desire to be seen, to see yourself represented. We need more stories from different perspectives, because there’s never going to be any one story that’s going to speak to such a diverse experience.”

Gordon nods at this. “All we set out to do was tell our story, but we want to see other people’s stories,” she says. “We want to be involved in other people’s stories. If our movie does anything to help other South Asian people tell theirs, that would be amazing.”

It is worth noting that the series of potential brides Kumail’s mother finds are played for comedic value at first, before we realise the sheer effort involved in these casual ‘drop-ins’. Kumail’s mother invests not just her time, but her hope for her youngest son’s future; the women who come by the house are human beings looking for love in a way their families have done for generations.

This comes to a head when a character by the name of Khadija (played by the excellent Vella Lovell) calls Kumail out for his selfishness – not so much because he doesn’t buy into the concept of arranged marriages, but for letting his family and his potentially betrothed go through the motions when he knows his heart is elsewhere.

“We thought about that a lot,” says Nanjiani. “Kumail is sort of dismissive of these women at the beginning of the movie, and what we wanted to show with the Khadija scene is show that he’s been wrong, he’s been the asshole this whole time. They are dealing with their own stuff, they have full lives and should be the leads of their own movies.”

Likewise, it’s hard to begrudge Nanjiani being the lead of this one. He’s amassed a portfolio of gleaming roles, in addition to his breakout work in HBO’s Silicon Valley, but through it all his love for romantic comedies has shone brightest. He’s such a big fan of Four Weddings and a Funeral that he’s seen it some 50 times, including a wedding-day viewing for himself and Gordon.

There’s even a scene in The Big Sick when he reveals a high-school photo of himself with hair modelled after a certain Hugh Grant. “That was not a doctored photo!” Gordon confides.

All this culminated recently in a perfect Twitter thread detailing the day Nanjiani met Four Weddings director Richard Curtis.

Through Curtis, the couple also got to meet Grant, something they’re still excited about. Gordon has made an artform of ribbing Nanjiani about the fact that Hugh Grant is “one of his guys”, something that makes Nanjiani’s expression flit between extreme embarrassment and extreme pride.

It’s the latter emotion that’s best suited to this film, though — it’s so good it wouldn’t be out of place on anyone’s wedding day.

The Big Sick is in cinemas now.

Hari Raj has worked as a journalist and editor in Malaysia, China, and Australia. He tweets about pop-culture ephemera at @jarirah.