Big Sick: Interracial Comedy from Writer-Star Kumail Nanjiani

The premiere of The Big Sick, which took place Monday, was attended by star, writer and executive producer Kumail Nanjiani, writer and executive producer Emily V. Gordon, director Michael Showalter, producers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel and some of the film’s stars Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano and Aidy Bryant.

The film, which had world premiered at the Sundance Film Fest, is based on the real life romance of Nanjiani and Gordon. When Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) goes into a medically-induced coma as she suffers from a mysterious illness, Kumail (Nanjiani) must deal with the personal hardship. Kumail is then forced to hide his relationship from his traditional Pakistani-Muslim family.

“I felt that even though this is a very personal story, based on a true story, there were very important themes and universal ideas in the script that appealed to me about Americans struggling to figure things out and doing their best and not doing it perfectly,” Showalter said.

Apatow holds that when a story this distinctive is laid out, it is up to directors and producers to make sure that these stories are told and shared with a large audience. “It’s very rare when someone approaches you with a story that’s so unique, or  story that you haven’t heard yet, while also being very heartfelt and hilarious,” Apatow said.

Principal photography of The Big Sick took place a year ago, during a time when a completely different political climate prevailed–as compared to now.



“I just hope people watch it and maybe there will be a happy side-effect that will humanize those who are currently being profiled or who are shown in a way that differs from who they really are.”


Portraying Secular Muslims

Kumail Nanjiani:  It takes a long time for any minority to be portrayed in American pop culture.  And when they are first portrayed, they are portrayed in a very stereotypical way.  We saw that with gay people and with East Asian people. Then the next step that happens is, their ethnicity is completely ignored because it’s seen as sort of the accepting thing to do, is to not define them by their ethnicity, so it’s completely ignored.  Then you see a lot of people who are from minority group, but their race or background isn’t really part of the character in any way. And then I think the final step is to have that minority and I don’t like using the term minority, but those people portrayed in a real way so that they are their own people that are not defined solely on where they are from or their sexuality or anything, they are not defined solely on where they are from, but that it is part of their story, it is part of their personality and it’s not something that’s ignored.  Right now with Muslim people, hopefully that’s where we are getting to, seeing them portrayed in a nuanced way, so that they are not defined by their culture, but their culture isn’t ignored either.

The big issue with American pop culture is that there is no real image of a Muslim that is not stereotypical.  Most people in America, when they think of a Muslim, they think of a scary person, because that is how most people know Muslim’s from the news. I want to see movies where there aren’t Muslims like Muslims from the news.  You can just think of a Jewish person who is culturally Jewish, and you can think of a Christian person who is culturally Christian, but when you think of Muslims in America, you think of a very specific thing and I hope that that changes.

Response to Film

KN:  It’s pretty interesting.  I heard from a lot of people who are second generation immigrants from the part of the world where I am from, and they said they felt themselves reflected in a way on screen that they had not before, which to me is very gratifying.  I see a lot of people on Twitter going the story was really and I will see their Twitter avatar and it’s like a multi-cultural relationship and it’s like great, it’s great that those people feel like some version of their experience is being portrayed.  There is a big English newspaper in Pakistan called “Dawn,” and they did a review of the movie and they really liked it and they said that they felt that all the different perspectives were really balanced, which I thought was really gratifying.  Because when we are making this movie, it’s very easy for my family to sort of be the underdog, or be portrayed as people who are out of touch or from an old culture, and we really didn’t want to do that, we really wanted my family’s cultural perspective to be just as valid as any other character’s perspective.

KN:  Yesterday at one of the screenings, I saw a guy coming out of the bathroom, and he saw me and he was like oh my God.  And he wiped away his tears and at the end of it, he was a guy who was bigger than me and muscular and a lot of tattoos and he was kind of like a guy that I would think would be sort of, he is very different from how I am and he came up to me after the movie and he was like, I can’t tell you why, but I really personally related to your movie.  But I can’t tell you why. And then he walked away and I was like, I want to know why!  What’s your story?  And I really think it’s so beautiful that America is this experiment in progress, but it’s so multi-cultural and people from all over the world get to live next to each other and there’s two ways that you can do it, and you can either reject other people’s points of view or you can allow other people’s points of view to exist right next to you.  Or, you can engage with other people’s point of view and allow it to affect your point of view.  And I really think the movie, as Zoe was saying, is about our shared humanity rather than the differences in point of view that some people use to split us apart.

Different Contexts

KN: There are many coincidences that correspond with the movie’s release, but The Big Sick shouldn’t be viewed as a political message.  It is interesting that the movie is being seen in a different context than it was intended.  Obviously it would be great if our movie came out and people didn’t see it as a political statement because it really isn’t. It is just a love story and a comedy.

Comedy about Cancer

KN:  Well, it wasn’t until a few years after the events, because going through the events, people were like, were you taking notes when this was happening?  And I was like no, that would have been so vulgar.  I was just like I hope she doesn’t die.  It was tough times.  It was a few years, because for a long time, just thinking about it was sort of electrocuting an open wound.  It was just like you couldn’t think about it, it was paralyzing.  A few years after it, I was just like, this big crazy thing happened to both of us and I feel like at least for me, writing about it was a way that I could process it, because I knew I had to process the event and I knew that it still had a lot of power over me in a way that was negative.  I hadn’t processed it.  I am a comedian and that is the world where I feel really comfortable, and I was like, if we can turn this really horrible event, that ultimately did bring us together, but was really, really dark, if we can turn this into a comedy in a way that still feels true to our emotional experience of the event, then that would be special.  Because when you describe the movie, it’s a Muslim guy who falls in love with a white woman and she goes into a coma, it’s almost like alright, I don’t want to see this, I don’t want to have a bad day. But it is a comedy.  And there is something funny about people trying to deal with a situation that they are not equipped for, and that is where a lot of the humor comes from.  So right from the beginning we want to make this a comedy, but a human comedy about characters in extraordinary situations.

Playing Superhero

KN: People ask me, you know, if you were a superhero in a superhero movie, who would you play?  And I am like, I literally have no options and there is no superhero I could play, but I am like, I should be Captain America.  Why can’t there be a Captain America that looks like me?  This is America.

I’ll be The Flash.  So I hope that it sort of continues and one thing that Zoe said yesterday that really stuck with me, she said that the specificity of people’s stories is actually what contributes to people feeling represented.  So it’s not like my story is the story of every secular Muslim or anything, it’s just my story.  And I think people can connect to it because of the specificity of it, so I hope that it sort of continues.  It’s still difficult.  There still aren’t many people who look like me in lead roles in movies.  But the fact that you can count them, (laughter) the fact that you can name them…


KN:  Mindy Kaling writes and creates her own stuff, which is how she got that opportunity and the same with Aziz and the same with this.  So we are still in a position where we sort of have to write and create our own stuff, which is great because we get to control it, which is really good.  And I am very grateful that we get to have these opportunities.


Writing together the Parents Roles

KN:  I think we sort of mixed it up.  There were certain scenes, when we were divvying it up, I was like and Emily was like, I want to write the first draft of this scene and there were certain scenes where I was like I want to write the first draft of this scene.  So for my parents, I wanted to take first crack at it and we actually put in lines that my parents had actually said to me and I said this yesterday but it was interesting, writing lines for my parents for the first time actually really helped me understand their point of view on all this stuff and I had never really gotten it. And I haven’t fully gotten it, but I have a little bit more insight into what it was like for them going through this experience and having a son who didn’t go exactly the way that they had envisioned, but still someone that they are I think, proud of.  So that was interesting.  And then for Emily’s parents, Emily wrote those scenes, generally she wrote those first, but we would rewrite each other’s stuff.  And what was interesting was, in the movie, a lot of the scenes, both of our perspectives are in both of those scenes, in all of those scenes, and so a lot of the conflict just comes from our different points of view in this experience.  And then we worked a lot, just as we worked with Zoe to develop the character of Emily once we got Holly and Ray on board and we worked with them a lot in developing their characters and giving specificity to their voices, cause when you have actors like this who are so smart and writers too, you want to use them and listen to everyone.  And what Zoe said was great because sometimes when Emily wasn’t there, it was great to have Zoe there because it is very important to have someone representing a female point of view.  And Emily is such a funny writer and she can write women so funny and so real, I am like, I think in this business, you have a super power.  Like so many people don’t even consider that point of view, the fact that she could do that. I mean, people are approaching her all the time to write stuff because she is a really great writer, but she can write from a point of view that not many people can.  So it was very gratifying writing my parents, and in a way, I don’t want to say that is, because it is their story too you know, but it was gratifying and I hope they feel that we did a good job in presenting them.


Director Michael Showalter’s Contribution

KN: Mike is a very funny person and he has done a lot of sketch comedy and stuff and he has done a lot of comedies.  But on top of that, there are a bunch of skills.  Mike is a tremendously emotional person in real life. He is very romantic and he loves Rom-Com.  So, what he brought to it was obviously the funny stuff but he has a great sense of story and he is just very in touch with his emotions.  So in a movie like this, where the balance of funny and the balance of heart, really is the most important thing and we want to, sometimes people will say I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and we were like, that’s perfect, that is exactly what we want.  And Mike was just really good at nailing that down.  And what he gave me personally was a piece of mind and that I trusted him so much that I knew once we started shooting, I could focus on the acting and Emily would focus on the re-writing and Mike would focus on the directing.  And I knew that we were taken care of.