Kumail Nanjiani on “The Big Sick”: “I don’t deserve this”

Dating across cultures is hard. It’s even harder when one of you is in a coma.
June 26, 2017, 6:52am

Dating across cultures is hard. It’s even harder when one of you is in a coma.

And turning that experience into a funny movie sounds just about impossible, but Kumail Nanjiani has somehow managed to do it. “The Big Sick,” which hit theaters in limited release this week, is a feel-good summer rom-com about a guy who gets dumped by a girl who spends most of her time in a medically induced coma.

I met Kumail and his collaborator and wife, Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan in the film), at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, where we talked about what it’s like to make jokes about serious things in serious times.

Advertisement

This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

Dexter: Kumail, you’re one of a handful of brown people who is prominent in popular culture. And now your first movie is coming out. Do you feel any kind of responsibility knowing that people are looking to you to represent them?

Kumail: You know, I used to not feel any of that pressure.

Dexter: Really?

Emily: And it almost feels like you intentionally pushed it away.

Kumail: Yeah. Until a little over a year ago, I was like, “I don’t represent anything. I just am me; I’m not my people.” But now I’m feeling that you can’t really control that. You don’t choose what you represent; other people choose for you. And I’m seeing now because this movie’s coming out and the people from my part of the world who are sort of in the entertainment industry now are sort of seen as like this new movement like Aziz, Riz…

Emily: And Hassan!

Kumail: And Mindy, yeah. So I guess I’m realizing that I don’t get to choose that.

Dexter: I’ve had a bunch of conversations with friends about this movie. I think for a lot of people, this feels like the authentic immigrant experience. But there are people who might not get it. Do you think there’s any danger that somebody might watch this and come away thinking, “Man, Pakistanis are kinda messed up?”

Kumail: I hope not. So I have a couple of different things to say about that one. We start off the movie showing a really loving family. We wanted to show that this is how this family works. They make fun of each other. And they have a good time together and eat together. They love each other. The other thing is, there are certain stereotypes that people associate with [Pakistan]. Right? I would say most people who view arranged marriage as sort of an outdated way of doing things. There is a danger. I’ll see people being like, “Oh my God, it’s another thing about arranged marriage.” But we wanted to show it. Just because it’s part of a stereotype doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t portray it.

Advertisement

Dexter: It feels like sometimes there’s this pressure to present the perfect version of “your people,” whatever that means. And it sounds like you don’t want to do that.

Kumail: Yeah. I mean, that’s exactly right. I wanted to really, truly portray my experience with my culture. I don’t feel like I need to represent, like you were saying, this really clean version of it. Like there are certain things about it that I truly love, and certain things about it that are difficult for me, that I disagree with. We’re in a strange time right now because so much of my culture is demonized, so you can’t really be completely open and frank, because I think that is irresponsible at this point in time.

Dexter: Open and frank in front of outsiders?

Kumail: Right. You have to be a little — I think you have to be a little careful.

Emily: You gotta shine it, like, a little.

Kumail: Yeah, you have to put a little bit of shine on it. I don’t think this is the time for me to make my broad critiques of this society that I’m from. I really don’t. But that’s me as a commentator. Me as a person experiencing it, I feel like I can communicate my experience in a nuanced and personal way and not really feel like that will do any damage. I hope. I don’t think it will.

Emily: It’s complicated stuff.

Kumail: It’s complicated.

Dexter: It sounds like you’re a little worried about it.

Kumail: I really don’t think anybody’s going to walk out of our movie thinking [Pakistanis are messed up]. I think that they’ll walk out of the movie thinking that Muslims are more humanized. You know, I think our movie does that. And I think Pakistanis and Muslims will feel a little more normalized, and it’s crazy that we have to “normalize” Muslims and Pakistanis, but…

Advertisement

Dexter: That’s kind of where we are right now.

Kumail: That’s where we are. And I think what [everyone] will see is that they have the same struggles that everyone else does. Like, the character of Kumail in the movie is a guy who’s sort of different to different people. He’s a comedian with his friends. With his parents, he’s the dutiful son. With Emily, he’s another person who’s kind of trying to not be Pakistani. And so we wanted to show that. That his issue is that he doesn’t have an integrated life.

Emily: We all have little things that we do, especially when you go home with your family. Like, when I’m at my parents’ house, I’ll go out, get food, eat it, and then I know my mom will be upset if I didn’t eat at home. So I pretend like I haven’t eaten. And I’ll throw away the evidence. What a weird thing to do. I’m a grown woman.

Kumail: By the way, this is the most controversial thing we’ve said in this interview.

Emily: I hope to God they don’t see this.

Kumail: If your mom sees it, we’re fucked. The jig is up, Emily. What are you doing?

WATCH: Kumail Nanjiani speaks about his identity

The Big Sick, which is out in select theaters today, is a feel-good summer rom-com about a guy who gets dumped by a girl who spends most of her time in a medically induced coma. The love story is based on the real-life courtship of Pakistani-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) and his wife Emily Gordon (@emilyvgordon), whom Dexter Thomas (@dexdigi) sat down with at their favorite comic book store in Los Angeles.

A post shared by Vice News (@vicenews) on Jun 22, 2017 at 11:34am PDT

Advertisement

Dexter: So the reviews of the movie are amazing. They’re very positive.

Kumail: Yes.

Dexter: And let’s just be real about it. Most people of the people writing the reviews: white dudes.

Kumail: Right.

Dexter: Really excited about the movie.

Kumail: Yeah.

Dexter: Does that weird you out at all?

Emily: [laughs]

Kumail: No. But I am really curious to see. Because I also understand that there’s like a little bit of, you know, white guilt that goes into reviewing stuff like this. I do want to read reviews from many different groups. So…

Emily: Dawn!

Kumail: The Pakistani newspaper. That’s like the biggest, oldest English newspaper. It’s called Dawn. They reviewed it and they gave it a really good review. And their review just came out a couple of days ago.

Emily: That meant a lot.

Kumail: So that was very exciting to me. Because I do want to hear reviews from all different groups. Specifically, you know, minority groups, or whatever the right word is.

Emily: Non-white.

Kumail: Yeah, non-white people, from women, from gay people, because I definitely want… I’m curious to read all those reviews. Mostly I want to see the reaction from Indian and Pakistani people back there, and Indian and Pakistani people back here or in the U.K.

Dexter: What do you think that conversation will be like?

Emily: I think it’ll be interesting.

Kumail: I’ve heard from people who haven’t seen the movie, but whose experiences, their immigrant experience, is different from mine. And that their parents were more assimilated into American culture, and so they sort of see it as like, “Oh, this is another movie that’s about, like, parents wanting their — wanting to impose their culture on the kid.” And I say to that, this is truly personal and this is my life. And I hope you get to articulate your experience, too.

Emily: It’s hard. No one’s going to be able to get every shade of nuanced experience out, because there’s just not enough stories. We have so many movies that are out about white dudes and white women that like, you can find yourself somewhere if you are white. So that’s a little tougher, but hopefully that will get better as more stories are told.

Kumail: There are a lot of people from my part of the world who are like, “We want representation, but why this guy? He’s not funny or a good actor or smart or good-looking. He doesn’t deserve this.” And I’m like, “You’re right! I don’t deserve this. I shouldn’t be representing everyone!” But for whatever reason right now, to some people, I am. So I’m going to try and do the best I can.