Disclaimer: I compiled my thoughts on The Big Sick back in July when I watched it in the theatre, but I am only now publishing this post after it sat in my draft folder for no good reason.
I just watched The Big Sick and I now understand why the film received backlash on its representation of South Asian women.
The week when this film was released, opinion articles and reviews began to pop up on my social media timelines. I try not to read up on movies I plan to watch in the theatre so I can go in with as few murmurs and judgments as possible, but I recall headlines specifically criticizing the way South Asian women were portrayed in the rom-com. I admit that it was easy for me to brush this perspective aside. Not because I was indifferent, but The Big Sick is based on the real life story of how comedian Kumail Nanjiani met and fell in love with his wife Emily V. Gordon. At the time, my only view of the opposing side of the room was through tweets. I specifically avoided any in-depth analysis to preserve my own experience. My impression was that the backlash targeted the film’s plot of Kumail (who plays a version of himself as the main character) and his decision to not enter into an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman. Instead, he falls in love with Emily (Zoe Kazan)—a white woman. Though I absolutely understand how and why this premise alone arouses valid sensitivities over what Hollywood chooses to tout, I couldn’t help but give The Big Sick the benefit of doubt since it’s a direct chapter from Nanjiani ‘s life.
But as I sat back to watch the film, I found myself shift in my seat and cringe at very specific story elements and imagery that may not strike with the same intensity on a viewer who hasn’t lived their own version of the many Pakistani women in the movie, repeatedly turned down by a man for simply sharing the same ethnicity.
Many of the scenes in The Big Sick take place at the home of Kumail’s parents’ where they catch up over a meal. His mother, played by Zenobia Shroff, isn’t shy about her disapproval of Kumail ‘s decision to pursue a career in stand up comedy over law school. She expects that her youngest son will follow their deeply held tradition of arranged marriage and consistently invites young, single Pakistani women over to dinner with fingers tightly crossed and with hope that Kumail will finally find a partner.
Anyone raised in North America with immigrant parents can empathize with Kumail’s situation. He loves his parents but refuses to turn away from a significant part of American life ethos: you get to choose whom you spend your life with. This concept isn’t a hard sell but its execution didn’t land.
The first woman we see presented to Kumail’s character by his parents is dressed in colorful traditional attire. She’s sweet, bubbly, attractive, and comes across as nervous. Immediately after sitting next to Kumail she turns to him and makes it clear that she is not only aware that his favorite show is the X Files, but she made the effort to watch the series—presumably to show her desire to get to know him before they even met. The scene is perfectly awkward and it’s obvious why it was included in the trailer. The way this woman stammers the famous catchphrase from the X Files, randomly, to her standoffish blind date is hilarious and relatable. Most of us have been in a position of trying to present our best selves and as a result inadvertently release the freak flag. Despite this first suitor coming across as endearing, it’s obvious that her character exists to backup his aversion to follow his family’s orders but it wasn’t well thought out. It’s easy to backup Kumail when he resists against arranged marriage but this scene left me puzzled. After all, he’s a 30-something man who doesn’t have a steady job and sleeps on an air mattress in a dank apartment he shares with a roommate. Kumail’s snub to this woman feels like a reach. If anything, the viewer questions how his parents were able to convince this single woman that their son is such a catch.
It’s important to mention that after each date his parents force on him, the ladies all leave Kumail with a parting gift—a headshot with details of each suitor printed on the back. These cards are a physical reminder of the blind dates Kumail wants no part of. He goes home and discards them in an empty box that collects dust on his dresser. The imagery of these Pakistani faces stacked and stored away in a dark box is meant to remind the audience of the absurd amount of dates forced on Kumail to make his exhaustion palpable. It does meet the goal but I also felt incredibly sad for those women. Kumail’s knee-jerk reaction to not even briefly consider any of these women whom came across as immense catches compared to his late-bloomer transition to adulthood was a puzzle. He instinctively turns his back on arranged marriage but it’s not clear why he does the same to these women who share his complexion and cultural background.
This is when I offer an obligatory clarification: I like this movie. It kept my attention, it was a joy to see Holly Hunter again (she played Kazan’s mother), and it certainly pulled some laughs out of my cold soul. Kazan and Nanjiani had chemistry and I am genuinely thankful this love story made it to the big screen—that is not an easy accomplishment. But I do know that I lingered on certain points in the story since I am a black woman who can’t help but feel a kinship to the women who were discounted for being too similar, on the surface at least, to a very average man who they make an effort to get to know. As mentioned, this script was based on a true story. It’s nonsense to suggest that certain plot points were a misstep if that’s truly how this love story came to be and that’s certainly not what I infer. But I do think this movie is a really exciting and worthy example why viewers are so receptive to watching movie and television from a variety of writers and directors whose perspectives haven’t always been valued. A happy ending isn’t necessarily when the brown girl gets the guy; it’s when she’s fully realized and heard rather than being repeatedly used as an example of a coarse wool cloak so the audience is aware and appreciative when it’s shown cashmere.