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  • Articles by Sonali

    Film review: The Big Sick

    Kumail Nanjiani is a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian and actor (Silicon Valley). He’s both written, and stars in, The Big Sick – a romantic comedy with a twist set in Chicago – and the surprise box-office hit of the summer.

    In the film Kumail portrays himself: a struggling stand-up comedian who meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) when she heckles him during his stand-up routine. They date for a while but break up after a disagreement. Soon after Emily falls very ill (hence the film’s title). The Big Sick details the relationship between Nanjiani and his real life wife Emily V.Gordon before they got married. They co-wrote the script. This seemingly breezy film has depth and scope which might explain its success.

    The first third of this film looks at the burgeoning relationship between Kumail and Emily. The actors are charming and well-matched; their relationship is plausible. The jokes are low-key although there are a few good one-liners such as, ‘cricket is a spicier version of baseball’. Kumail chats up Emily by translating her name into Urdu.

    Nanjiani doesn’t look like your typical stand-up comedian. He looks more like a doctor or an engineer with his neat haircut and polite manners. If you’re unfamiliar with his work it's mostly based on observations, more witty and offbeat than laugh-out-loud; and sometimes his comic timing is questionable. The Big Sick is more about strong storytelling incorporating comedy moments.

    We meet Kumail’s fellow stand-up comedians Chris (Kurt Braunohler), CJ(Bo Burnham) and Mary (Aidy Bryant), all of whom are trying to make their mark on the circuit. There’s a sense of camaraderie here which also helps to lighten the mood. But the couple hit an obstacle. Kumail’s parents are traditional Muslims even though they’ve lived in America for over fifteen years. The expectation is that he will finish his engineering course and settle down with a Pakistani girl. He’s afraid to tell them about Emily. She breaks off the relationship when she finds out.

    Nanjiani is keen to present an alternative view of Muslims and counteract their negative representation in the media. His portrayal of Kumail is finely tuned when we see his quiet determination to forge his own identity. Kumail wants to live by American values, contrary to his parent’s wishes. They seem amiable enough but his mum Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) and dad Azmat (Anupam Kher) are uncompromising in their intention for him to have an arranged marriage.

    Perhaps he isn't a very good Muslim but he’s clearly proud of his Pakistani heritage. He includes a potted history of Pakistan in his stand-up act, referencing the 70th anniversary of Partition ‒ when the Muslim nation of Pakistan was officially created on 14 August 1947.

    Kumail also meets Emily’s parents: Beth played by Holly Hunter and Terry (Ray Romano) in hospital when Emily enters a medically induced coma. Some critics suggest that Hunter and Romano play cameo roles here. In fact, they’re both convincing as concerned parents when Emily's condition remains critical. Beth and Terry also get to know Kumail. Their interactions with him are entertaining. The comedy elements are subtly incorporated into the story, without being over the top.

    The Big Sick also deftly addresses the current prejudices against Muslims in Donald Trump’s America. Terry questions a bemused Kumail about 9/11 over lunch in the hospital canteen. Later on, Kumail is the target of some Islamophobic comments from a member of the audience during his stand-up routine. Beth defends him and her angry conduct seems appropriate. The drama is realistic. The plot isn’t sugar-coated either. The narrative holds our interest although the pace slows down a tad towards the end.

    It’s certainly a novelty to see a Pakistani actor take a leading role in an American film. The Big Sick provides an original and contemporary view of the Muslim immigrant experience in America. This is a different sort of rom-com and is definitely worth a look.


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