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The Big Sick is a culturally specific story that’s relatable to other cultures

‘Independent films have a certain freedom about them’

Photo: Lionsgate/The Big Sick

Spoilers ahead for The Big Sick.

Independent movie The Big Sick, which just opened in international markets, is a culturally specific project that’s surprisingly cross-culturally relatable. The critically acclaimed Sundance darling, scripted by TV writer-producer Emily Gordon and actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani, finds comedy and drama in the story of their real-life relationship. It’s most specific about how Nanjiani relates to his traditional Pakistani family, who have strikingly different expectations than Gordon’s white, well-off North Carolina parents. In examining how Nanjiani deals with both sets of parents, the film is dealing with one person’s direct, highly personal experience with culture clashes and family expectations. And yet it’s surprisingly relatable — not just to people who share Nanjiani’s background, but to my culture and family experience as well.

In the film, Nanjiani (who plays himself) is an aspiring stand-up comedian in Chicago, while Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan, and renamed “Emily Gardner”) is a grad school student who attends one of his shows. They date, but Nanjiani's fear that his parents will disown him for getting serious about a white woman leads him to hide their relationship. Meanwhile, his family keeps setting him up with women, in hopes of brokering an arranged marriage. His shame around his attraction to Gordon, and his belief that they have no future together, are insurmountable roadblocks to their relationship, and they split up. Then Gordon gets desperately ill, and winds up in a coma. As Nanjiani navigates his feelings around that, and his sudden relationship with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), The Big Sick reveals more about what Nanjiani’s family wants for him.

Nanjiani’s experience as a person of color (PoC) growing up in the West is well-developed. He’s torn between loyalty to his family, who have sacrificed so much in order to give him a good, safe life, and being himself. As a Pakistani son, Nanjiani is expected to marry someone his parents choose, and to have a predetermined career path — preferably as a doctor or a lawyer, and definitely not as a comedian. Though his parents only begrudgingly oblige his stand-up act, he clearly still connects to his Pakistani heritage, having an entire one-man show dedicated to educating people about Pakistan and its culture.

Even though the film is deeply embedded in Pakistani culture and Nanjiani’s specific experience, I saw so many instances in it that were parallel to my own upbringing in a Vietnamese family. It’s rare for a mainstream-accessible film to deeply examine the conflict that arises from being true to your own goals instead of the ones your parents want to assign to you. In the film, Nanjiani mentions having to defy his parents to have a comedy career. When he chooses Gordon instead of an arranged marriage, they disown him. There’s an expectation, in my culture as well as his, that people should follow their parents’ wishes — perhaps putting their happiness ahead of yours.

I always wanted to write for a living, and my parents were hesitant at first, because creative industries aren’t seen as prestigious as medical or legal careers. I know they wanted the best for me, but sometimes that meant compromising my dreams, and sometimes that made me deeply unhappy. Growing up, I struggled with their disapproval and worry.

It was a constant source of conflict for me, I wanted to be a good daughter and wanted to make them happy, but I didn’t want to compromise my own happiness. But Nanjiani has a model for how to navigate that problem: in the film, when his family disowns him, he refuses to accept it. He shows up to family dinners uninvited, and says he’s still a part of the family. In the same way, I refused to kind of give into that pressure in expectation, and it resolved when my parents saw how happy and successful I could be as a writer.

Near the end of The Big Sick, when Nanjiani decides to move to New York City, his parents show their support and affection awkwardly, and in limited ways. Already angered by his other choices, his mother makes him his favorite dish, but stays in the car and refuses to speak to him, or even make eye contact. Nanjiani told the news site Junkee that he and Gordon deliberately didn’t give his character and his mother a simple happy ending.

“We decided not to have that because we didn’t want any of the stories to be tied up fully,” he says. “We wanted to leave all of them a little open-ended. The family reconciliation would have been a disservice to the challenges we faced. For immigrants and their kids, it’s a really challenging thing, and at least for my case, those issues are never fully resolved. And so we wanted to show that these things aren’t easy. There’s still love there, and my parents and I want to make it work, but it’s not just ‘It’s done and it’s fixed.’ This is something we’ll probably work on for the rest of our lives.”

Nanjiani does recognize that his movie is a stand-in for other, similar cultural experiences, but that it isn’t for everyone. He tells Junkee there’s no “monolithic” South Asian experience. “I think the tough thing is that because there aren’t that many US pop-culture examples of stories from South Asian perspectives, each story has all this pressure on it to represent the South Asian experience, when truly there is no such thing,” he says. “We need more stories from different perspectives, because there’s never going to be any one story that’s going to speak to such a diverse experience.”

He’s right in saying that people need to see more perspectives on film. I relate to this story as a child of immigrants. The ones presented in The Big Sick show a lot about the immigrant experience, but it’s still rare for a movie to address this kind of second-generation immigrant point of view. The conflict of effectively growing up in two cultures, through family and society, is complicated enough to offer a wide variety of stories about parents navigating a new country and trying to figure out how to raise their children and respect their traditions.

I wish I had more stories like this shown to me when I was younger. I think they would have made me more understanding of my parents’ plight, of the way they survived a war to give me a good life. Watching The Big Sick together, maybe they could see my side, too, that not all Vietnamese girls want to grow up to become doctors. Maybe it would have been easier for them to understand that whether a child becomes a writer or a singer or a scientist isn’t really that big of a deal. Nor is who they marry, whether it’s a “nice Vietnamese boy,” or someone else from a different culture.

Sometimes there’s a clash of cultures because you’ve grown up in a place that has different expectations, and you may struggle, but when entertainment depicts and explores these circumstances, it feels like you’re sharing an experience with others, and getting a hint that things can be okay. Indie movies have the freedom to let people tell really specific stories, and the result is a kind of originality and veracity that can speak to many different people. Stories like The Big Sick might not always get the entertainment spotlight, but they can resonate deeply with viewers simply because they bring across shared cultural experiences that aren’t always making it onto the screen.

Celebrated Australian actress Toni Collette once said of independent films: “What it comes down to is story. Independent films have a certain freedom about them — there isn’t so much at stake in terms of money. I think they’re more interesting because they’re not watered down to appeal to the masses. They tend to have a unique voice.” If a lot of people can relate to it, maybe it’s not unique, but stories like The Big Sick — outside the mainstream, but inside real people’s lives — are incredibly valuable all the same.