I beamed, BEAMED, when I saw posters of The Big Sick in the tube – emblazoned as they were with the smiling brown face of Pakistani-American, and fellow born and bred Karachiite, Kumail Nanjiani. A Hollywood rom-com with a protagonist I could remotely identify with? I’m there!
And certainly, for bringing us diverse faces, and for being hilarious and heartfelt in parts, The Big Sick delivers. But, like many others who’ve written about the film before me, I also just couldn’t get past the clichéd portrayal of its cross-cultural love story.
In a nutshell, the film depicts the real-life courtship between Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon (also the co-writer of the screenplay) and their tumultuous journey towards happily-ever-after.
A key source of turbulence in the story is Nanjiani’s Pakistani family, whose sole purpose in life, it would seem, is to sit around the dining table eating mutton biryani and pressuring him to marry a Pakistani woman of their choice. As the film progresses, he’s introduced to a veritable assembly line of prospective matches – whilst all the while being in love with a white American woman from North Carolina.
(Side note: No effort was spared in ensuring the authenticity of the biryani – it was sourced from Jackson Heights, and verified by Nanjiani himself as the ‘real deal’.)
The film joins a line of recent US shows – like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Hasan Minhaj: The Homecoming King – which have raised eyebrows and questions about their contentious depictions of South Asian lives. They’ve been particularly criticised for presenting desi women as under-developed characters – seldom more than a punchline, and unified in their lack of desirability compared to women of other ethnicities. It’s a critique I fully agree with.
I have an additional bone to pick though – and that’s with The Big Sick’s rather black and white portrayal of courtship and marriage.
The concept of arranged marriage has forever been viewed in the West as another example of the backwardness of South Asian and Muslim communities, and a reflection of our inability to assimilate with so-called liberal values. It’s thus a goldmine in terms of comedic and dramatic potential, and has been the source of endless lazy tropes in film and television about overbearing parents nudging unwilling children into undesirable unions, and a lifetime of certain quiet misery. Or sometimes just sometimes head scratchingly, unbelievably, magically, a fulfilling relationship and even love. But usually misery.
Disappointingly, The Big Sick is no different. At one point Nanjiani says: “Marriage in my culture equals arranged marriage”. While this may be his personal experience, his generalisation about an entire culture obviously serves to further strengthen a widely held stereotype.
Of course, arranged marriages are common in South Asian diaspora communities, but they aren’t always prescriptive and enforced as the film would have you believe. In reality, arranged matches are often sought by women and men, and do result in harmonious unions. Conversely, many South Asians date and marry partners of their own choice – from both within and outside their communities. If anything I’m surprised Nanjiani’s experience of his fellow Pakistani/ Pakistani-American friends and relatives has been so matrimonially uniform.
Let’s please have more rom-coms like The Big Sick, which are unconventional for the genre, cast non-white leads and feature diverse perspectives. But diversity on the visual medium needs to go beyond one-dimensional portrayals of ethnic communities, and move on from the tired narrative that to be engaging, humorous and relatable, ethnic minority characters must espouse a wholesale rejection of the values and beliefs of their cultures and communities. Because, you know, there’s all of mainstream Hollywood for that.
The Big Sick is showing in cinemas across London now.
By Rida Bilgrami.
Posted on 10 August 2017