As a lifelong student of romantic comedies, Kumail Nanjiani says he was more than prepared when it came time to write a script of his own,
“‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’ is the movie I’ve seen the most and from there I went into ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘When Harry Met Sally. “But I think I really got into romantic comedies when I was in middle and high school,’” Nanjiani, 39, told NBC News. "I liked girls, but they didn’t like me. I think that was part of it — I was living vicariously through these people and I think I got obsessed with romantic comedies after that.”
But “The Big Sick,” Nanjiani’s new film which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon, is more than just a romantic comedy for the couple. It’s the real-life story about how they met and how a life-threatening illness forced them to redefine their relationship.
Back in 2006, Nanjiani was a fledgling stand up comic when he met Gordon (who was then in grad school) during one of his shows. After dating casually for a few months, everything changed after Gordon fell gravely ill and was put in a medically-induced coma.
“We wanted it to be like our favorite movies and then we were trying to get the best script,” Nanjiani noted. “[When you are writing a personal story] you don’t think of how other people are going to experience it. But it’s really personal, and you realize that everyone is going to know about probably what was one of the most painful moments of our lives.”
The cast of “The Big Sick” is quick to point out that while the heart of the movie centers on a very serious event, it is first and foremost a comedy, and one that explores what happens when Pakistani immigrant Kumail decides a traditional arranged marriage is not for him. His character quips his way through a series of dinners with his family and prospective matches, while keeping his relationship with Emily (played on screen by Zoe Kazan) secret. Nanjiani says the film makes clear that Kumail is being unfair to everyone involved.
“We wanted to have a rom com that was very sweet and about all kinds of parents,” Nanjiani said when explaining the difference between the character Kumail’s Pakistani relatives and Emily’s Southern parents (portrayed by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). “But we realize that there is collateral damage to his actions because he’s affecting real lives.”
However, the film has been criticized online for its portrayal of Kumail’s potential Pakistani matches, with some critics saying the trailer reduced them to stereotypes. Nanjiani says that from the beginning the film worked to ensure that Khadija (Vella Lovell), the match moviegoers get to know the best, was a well-rounded character.
“We wanted to show that the Pakistani women that my mom introduced him to were real people. My character is not pro-arranged marriage, but there are people — young, cool, smart people — who are on board for it,” he said. “So we wanted to show that from the beginning.”
In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Khadija asks Kumail why he is wasting her time. “She’s pissed at Kumail and she’s totally right to be,” Nanjiani points out. “We wanted to show that she is perfect but that the only thing that’s wrong is that she’s not the woman Kumail is in love with. The only thing that’s wrong with her is that she doesn’t like ‘The X-Files.’”
Like many audience members who perhaps are not familiar with the tradition of arranged marriage, Romano said he had to process how important culture was to families like Kumail’s. “You think, ‘But why can’t he say that he’s in love with another woman?’” Romano said. “But the fact that he’s afraid of losing his family was something that I had to realize that is a truth.”
For veteran actor Anupam Kher, who plays Kumail’s father, ensuring that his character was well-rounded was a priority. Kher says “The Big Sick” marks his 500th film and that it was particularly special because he was Nanjiani’s father’s first choice to portray him.
Kher decided to cold call Nanjiani after hearing about the project from the comedian’s former agent (who also happened to be a distant cousin of Kher’s.) “I said, ‘I hear your father wants me to do the film and I am doing it,’” he recalled. “And he said, ‘Without reading the script?’ And I said, 'I’m sure it will be good because you will want to fulfill your father’s wish,’”
He did reserve the right to make tweaks to make his character realistic. “I wanted to break that stereotype of [the strict South Asian parent],” he noted. “His father was a chilled out man when I met him at the shoot.”
Throughout, Kher said he worked to portray his character’s actions from a place of love.
While Nanjiani has stressed that “The Big Sick” was not a political film, there was one joke that elicited gasps during a recent screening. In it, Romano’s character confesses that he had never talked to a Muslim about the September 11 attacks. “It was a tragedy,” Kumail the character replies. “We lost 19 of our best guys.”
“I wanted to put that in because when I was a comedian starting out, people wanted me to do ‘ethnic comedy’ material and I wouldn’t want to do it, And this is me being like, ‘you want an ethnic joke, well here’s the worst one possible,” Nanjiani explained. He added that the joke also reflects his character’s emotional barriers.
“Instead of dealing with his emotions, he’d rather deflect them with jokes," he explained. "The 9/11 joke happened during the first time Emily’s father tries to have a conversation with him and he deflects and it’s the worst deflection. But he’s a comedian and comedians make inappropriate jokes.”