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An Immigrant Love Story About Religion, Comas, And “The Beauty Of Compromise”

Actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon mined their real life for the heartfelt collaboration “The Big Sick.”

An Immigrant Love Story About Religion, Comas, And “The Beauty Of Compromise”
Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick by Michael Showalter Photo: Nicole Rivelli, Courtesy of Sundance Institute Photo: Nicole Rivelli, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl break up because his Muslim parents wouldn’t approve. She gets sick and goes into a coma. Boy stays at her bedside with the girl’s parents. You know, your usual love story.

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This is The Big Sick, based on the real-life story of comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon, which recently screened at South by Southwest and will be released in theaters on June 23. The couple wrote the romantic comedy, directed by Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer), but it goes beyond just that narrative. At its core, the film’s really about South Asian Muslim children raised in America dealing with their parents’ expectations. It’s a familiar story, especially to those who attempt to date non-South Asian partners.

This was the case for Nanjiani, who is from Pakistan and moved to America when he was 18. Portions of the relationship were fictionalized for the film, but the main thread remained the same: He met Gordon after a standup set in Chicago, they began dating, he didn’t tell his parents about her, she fell sick and he placed her in a medically-induced coma, he ended up telling his parents, she woke up, they got married, happily ever after.

After the couple told their story on a podcast, people would go up to Nanjiani after his standup sets and share their similar experiences, thankful that there was someone out there who understood what they were going through.

Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick

“There’s a whole group of people that had this experience that has not been articulated in pop culture yet,” says Nanjiani, “so I knew that if we were able to do this movie right, it would be able to speak to a pretty big group of people that hadn’t been spoken to.”

For children of immigrants, there are expectations, especially so for religious Muslims, where the path is set, because that was just the way things were. You’re supposed to study hard, get good grades, and become either a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. When it comes to marriage, you marry someone with the same exact background who is parent-approved.

That isn’t always the way it works, though. Sometimes, what you want is different from your parents, whether it was your career or potential spouse. But with that knowledge comes the feeling of overwhelming shame from not fulfilling family expectations, knowing that your parents sacrificed everything to give you a better life. And yet, you still yearn for independence.

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That is what Nanjiani went through. He was a comedian, he wasn’t religious (he pretended to pray at home by setting a timer and playing video games instead), and he was dating a white Christian woman, which he kept a secret. But he always felt that crushing sense of guilt because of what he was doing.

“Here in America, there’s an accepted version of rebelling against your parents, which is ‘Fuck you, I do what I want,” Nanjiani explains. “We don’t have that.” Gordon told him to just tell his parents, but he knew it wasn’t that simple. “‘No, we have to figure out a way,’ because we don’t have that.”

When Nanjiani finally told his parents, it wasn’t because he plotted it out. “I was emotionally exhausted so telling them didn’t feel hard,” he says, which happened during Gordon’s hospital stay. “It just felt like I’m too tired to not tell them right now.” It was the moment when Kumail expressed his true self to his parents, letting himself go.

He came to realize that he had nothing to worry about, eventually at least. “What I understood was, I wasn’t giving my parents enough credit,” he says, “because they love me so much that that would win out over all the other stuff.” Gordon and Nanjiani admit the beginning of the relationship with his parents was difficult, but they accepted their new daughter-in-law, even throwing the couple a Pakistani wedding after the pair got married quickly at City Hall.

Gordon has discovered a lot through her relationship with Nanjiani’s parents. “I’ve learned the beauty of compromise,” Gordon says. “There are different ways to respect parents.” Whenever she’s around them, she makes sure she doesn’t show too much skin. She thinks her husband learned how to be himself around his parents, while not worrying about whether they’d reject him.

As for how a gender-flipped version of the movie would look like, Gordon says, “I feel like the pressure is even higher for women.” She went on, “Who is more scary to Pakistani parents, a white girl or a white guy?”

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For others going through similar situations to Gordon and Nanjiani, it’s all about knowing what you want in life. “You decide whether the relationship you have is worth it,” he says. “Is this trouble that you’ve going to have with your family, is the relationship strong enough, and is it worth doing that? It’s scary and all that, but you know deep down, this is something I have to do or I don’t have to do.”

“For the white people that are in relationships,” Gordon says for others in her shoes, “realize you don’t know. Just be warm, friendly, and open minded, don’t be weird. This has nothing to do with you.” She laughs, “Just shut up and listen, and just go into a coma if all else fails.”