THE BIG SICK – An Interview with Kumail Nanjiani
The Big Sick is based on the real courtship of Kumail Nanjiani and his now-wife, Emily Gordon. They wrote this film together. It revolves around Kamal’s struggle to keep his traditional Pakistani Muslim family happy while pursuing his dream of being a stand up comic instead of the lawyer they want him to be. On top of all of this they want him to marry within their own community. His mother (Zenobia Schroff), keeps setting him up with eligible young women that “just happen to drop by” with their headshots and resumes at weekly family dinners. Of course during this time he is secretly dating Emily (Zoe Kazan), only his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), knows what he’s up to and warns him not to get serious because he knows what is expected of him. Arranged marriages are still done in their family and they work.
Emily wants to move the relationship to the next level and Kumail bails because he can’t stand the thought of losing his family by choosing an American girl to be with. He goes back to driving for Uber by day and working on his stand up at night trying to get over losing Emily. That’s when this comedy takes a dramatic turn and becomes a drama with humor interlaced between the difficulties of crisis involving a serious illness. Emily is waylaid by a mysterious illness that goes from flu like symptoms to the doctors inducing a coma to try and save her. Kumail must take charge at the hospital until her parents Beth (Holly Hunter), and Terry (Ray Romano), can get there to be with their daughter.
The rest of the film shows Kumail with Beth and Terry dealing with all the ups and downs of sudden illness. And as Kumail sticks by Emily's side he realizes that he made a big mistake walking away from the woman he really does love.
The Big Sick is the little indie romcom that could. Fans of the TV series “Silicon Valley” will recognize comedian Kumail as the character Dinesh in that show. But after the films very limited release which has won over audiences and critics alike, a whole new fan base will know him from this hit romantic comedy. It has been such a word of mouth success that it will open in wide release this week so everyone can enjoy this gem of a film. I was lucky enough to sit down with the co-writer and star in Dallas at the Hotel Zaza to ask him a few questions about this hit film.
The Big Sick is based on a pretty Intense experience you and your wife actually went through, how close is the film to what really happened?
There's a bit of embellishment just in the sense that we started with the kernels of our actual story and then added in elements that would make it more cinematic. Yeah I would say that the characterizations, outside of Emily and me, are fairly different. Her parents in the movie are very different from her parents in real life. In fact, if she were here the first thing she would tell you is that her parents never had to deal with an affair like they do in the movie. My parents are not as different. My dad and mom are pretty similar to those people in the film. Obviously, the details are different. We wanted to make the story everyone could relate to, and make it a movie that stands on its own, outside the factual events. But we wanted to make sure that emotionally it felt real. And that we captured how it felt emotionally to really go through those things in the hospital with all those doctors. So we always had that barometer, we could always go, “Okay, if we move this scene from here to there, does that still feel like how it felt to live through?”
So Kumail, do you think that the success of Ravi Patel's 2014 documentary Meet The Patels helped get your film to the screen?
Oh, I am not sure about that. I know Ravi and heard about his film but haven’t seen it myself. Actually, I look forward to the day when one brown man's film is not compared to any other brown man's film and can just stand on it’s own. I know we have a long way to go but that is the goal.
What do you mean you haven't seen it? It was a huge hit and about his family setting him up on arranged marriage dates until he marries outside his faith.
Well you see, my wife and I, decided not to watch any movies that were even remotely similar to what we were doing over the five years it took us to make the film. We did not want to be influenced by them. So we didn’t see that one or any romance films about people in a coma. And, believe it or not, there aren’t that many comedies about people in comas except the Sandra Bullock film While You Were Sleeping. I don’t know why. I am planning on catching up on everything we missed and will put that one on my list.
Are the scenes in the film when you are doing stand up accurately? Is there really that kind of camaraderie back stage with the other comics?
Oh yes, it really is like that. You know the good-natured ribbing and making fun of the people that you know will never go past the local level. You know you don’t want to be like the guy that's up there telling the same jokes for the last twelve years. The guy that will probably never advance to anything past doing stand up in their hometown.
And what about the heckling we saw in the movie. Have you actually been heckled about being Pakistanian like that before?
Unfortunately yes, there are times that people, especially after 9/11, had thrown out the terrorist remarks while I am on stage. Which is why I came up with that line that I used in the film just for that situation.
Well Kumail, your film is a hit, congratulations. But it's a busy summer and there's a lot out there to see, why should people seek out your film?
That's a good question, well, I would have to say because it's a film about getting past about relationships and getting past all the preconceived ideas that we have about people. Realizing that people are just people doing the best they can, and if we take the time to get to know them that we will probably really like them. And also, that my film is really funny too.
Directed by Michael Showalter
Written By Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Selig Rating A
Running Time 120min
Limited Release opening wide July 14th
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher