For ethnic-origin stand-up comedians in America, mining their personal life – especially the clash of culture they undergo living with their first generation immigrant parents steeped in the way of life they left behind, hold on to it stubbornly – while soaking in the new life they embrace, often surreptitiously to avoid conflict at home, is rich material. It’s a proven hit, loved by audiences across all ages.
Pakistani American comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh of HBO’s comedy series ‘Silicon Valley’), is no exception to that gig, in his stint at comedy clubs. And now, he’s gone one step further, by co-writing a delightful romantic comedy feature film with his wife Emily V. Gordon, ‘The Big Sick’. Emily is also the co-producer of the film. The couple got married in 2007.
Directed by Michael Showalter, and produced by Judd Apatow, ‘The Big Sick’ is loosely based on Nanjiani’s real-life courtship of his wife, when he was struggling to carve a name for himself in the comedy circuit, and Emily was a graduate student. He plays the lead role, while Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks” and “What If”) plays well the role of Emily.
The on-and-off courtship, which survives some tough relationship busting moments, especially the opposition by Kumail’s parents (Anupam Kher plays the father), and his family to his dating a White girl, while they try hard to get him married to a Pakistani-origin girl – which most South Asian American youngsters can very well commiserate with, has a lovely twist to it.
Even as Kumail, who was born in Karachi, and emigrated to America when he was 18 years old, gets distanced from his meddlesome parents who staunchly hold on to their old world values, he meets and then forges an emotional bonding with Emily’s estranged parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunt), after Emily and he have broken up, she is hospitalized and then put into a medically induced coma from a rare infection that threatens to prove fatal.
The film has three levels to it (taking cue from a line used by Romano in the film ‘I’ve got levels’, which he utters to a heckler in a comedy club after an ugly altercation): the tender, blossoming romance between Kumail and Emily after they meet in a comedy club; Kumail’s stereotype life at home, shown almost entirely through dinner table conversations where more often than not an eligible Pakistani girl just ‘drops by’ in hopes of forging a marital alliance; and his relationship with Emily’s parents.
In the span of two hours, the film manages to flesh out all these three levels adequately, with plenty of loud-out-aloud punch lines to accompany the roller-coaster vagaries of Kumail and Emily’s relationship.
At times the film becomes repetitive in its theme, tedious with the culture polarities driven home in almost mundane fashion. The saving grace, though, is smart dialogues replete with one-liners which keep the audience waiting for the next punch line to sink in. The film’s strong point is also its fine cast of actors, who deliver their lines with great aplomb and timing. They come across as characters with great personality.
‘The Big Sick’, which releases in select theaters in New York and California, on June 23rd, also tries to humanize racial tensions. In the Trump era, it’s an important film for White Americans to watch, get a feel of Muslim culture, figure out for themselves that not all Muslims are terrorists.
As Kumail explains earnestly during the course of the film, on him lying to his parents that he’s preparing to be a lawyer, when the topic of professions favored by South Asian parents crop up: at the top of the “hierarchy” are doctors, then come engineers, lawyers, all the humdrum other professions, then ISIS, and last, at the bottom of the heap, are stand-up comedians.
One thing’s for sure: for the price of a movie ticket, audience can get two hours of fine, subtle comedy that would cost much more to watch in a comedy club.