“The Big Sick”: Films with minorities don’t get a pass

ALLYSON KO / AGGIE

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s film reaffirms that details matter

After years of #OscarsSoWhite and in the throes of the #MeToo movement, it wasn’t surprising when the Academy of Motion Pictures nominated a diverse group of actors, producers and directors in 2017. A persistent and vocal public has begun to shape the course of film, and movies must tell a variety of stories, to which people all over the country can relate. There’s still a lot of progress to be made, but this year’s lineup was far better than those of years past.

While Asian Americans have been nominated for the coveted Oscar trophy, few have won in a major category. Until recently, Asian Americans played mostly technical roles in film. Admittedly, as a South Asian, there’s still a small thrill when movies about other brown people come to the Hollywood big screen — even if they fall flat most of the time. But “The Big Sick” looked different. Produced by Judd Apatow and starring Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, the movie had a strong comedic backbone. If anything, viewers would be guaranteed a laugh.

The plotline of the semi-autobiographical movie follows the tropes of most romantic comedies. Kumail Nanjiani (played by Kumail Nanjiani), an aspiring comedian, is heckled by graduate student Emily Gardner (played by Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows. Soon, they fall in love. Behind the scenes, Nanjiani’s parents, Sharmeen and Azbat (played by veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher), are trying to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani woman. Nanjiani can’t tell his parents about Emily, and Emily soon finds out about the arranged marriage, causing their acrimonious break-up. Soon thereafter, Emily is hospitalized and put into a medically-induced coma. Kumail comes face-to-face with the Gardners at the hospital, who know all about his evasiveness and lies and aren’t happy. Nanjiani is persistent, wins over the Gardners and finally wins over Emily, too.

The plotline isn’t anything revolutionary, save for the aspect of an interracial couple. And “The Big Sick” didn’t make a lot of money for that reason — it could easily be something for Netflix or Amazon Prime. But for those who decided to spend money on a ticket, the contributing factor was the film’s promotional tours. The claim was that the movie was going to show Muslims as “normal people.” It’s important to remember “The Big Sick” was released during the travel ban — and such a message was more than welcome. Cinema can really influence people’s opinions, and in a political environment that is so contentious, it’s wonderful to see actors and producers try to chip away at prejudice. Showing Muslims as “normal people” was a theme present throughout all of Nanjiani’s day-time talk show appearances and various other outlets. If the movie was going to do that, then it was only fair to spend money and support it.

But despite the hype, “The Big Sick” failed in several ways. It was more the underlying tone than explicit comedy that diluted its power. The main point of contention with this film is that brown women in cinema are not props at which to be laughed. All the women who came to visit the Nanjiani family were portrayed as weird and awkward and given the personality of a shoe. In contrast to this, every single white female had a character arc, even the minor ones. Not only were they portrayed as cool and funny, but they were also promoted as “desirable” in some way. Was the audience supposed to laugh when brown woman after brown woman was rejected because Kumail couldn’t be honest with his parents? Were they supposed to laugh when those women were so unbearably awkward? You do not need to embarrass brown women to raise a white woman, who is doing just fine in terms of audience likeability.

Emily held privilege over all the women who visited Kumail — at least she was given a chance. This juxtaposition illustrates why it’s so difficult to make a film that shows color: The audience suddenly becomes innately aware of their race. Kumail had so much disdain for the Pakistani women — one must wonder if it’d make other brown women feel that they need to be white to be desirable. Colorism and shade-ism are trends that need to go, and this film certainly didn’t help their exit.

The issue Emily’s film parents had with Kumail had nothing to do with him being a Pakistani Muslim — it was because he wasn’t straightforward. His parents’ expectations, on the other hand, were so racially inclined that it made them look backward; Emily was white, and therefore she was off limits. His mother saying the one thing she wanted was for him “to be a good Muslim and marry a Pakistani girl” could have been something he experienced in real life, but put next to the white family who were “progressive,” it didn’t come off well. It’s upsetting that Nanjiani and Gordon decided to make race a recurring point of conflict, but not from the family the audience expected.

As wonderful as it is that stories about interracial marriage and blending families are being produced, these films are only launched if there is a white protagonist involved. Usually the person of color must battle the world to be with them because they are just so worth it. And “The Big Sick” played into that cliché exactly: Emily didn’t even try to understand Kumail’s culture. Mainly, arranged marriages aren’t what they used to be, especially for immigrant families in the United States. In fact, many South Asians would view the Nanjiani family as broad-minded for giving him choices and chances and second chances. Unfortunately, the film used American culture as a benchmark to assess progressiveness, and that’s not fair.

When a film about people of color is released for a primarily white audience, it should portray people of color in the best possible light. As a society, we haven’t reached the point where minorities can discuss their issues — it shades the majority perspective. For many Americans — as crazy as this sounds — “The Big Sick” was the first time they had ever seen a Pakistani family or an interracial couple. South Asians would prefer to see themselves on screen reflective of the way they are in real life. Of course, “The Big Sick” did not use banal stereotyping, but are subtle stereotypes any better?

Moreover, the movie promised to further political dialogue with Nanjiani’s claim that it showed Muslims as “normal people.” But “The Big Sick” didn’t do that. There was one normal Muslim in the entire film, and that was him. His family surely wasn’t normal. Whatever the audience saw of them was confrontational and difficult. Moreover, viewers were able to see the Gardners accept Kumail, but the same could not be said of his Muslim family (when in real life they were welcoming). We know that many “traditional” American families have large hearts and broad minds — but the same cannot be said of Muslims and South Asians in films. If showing Muslims as “normal people” is as easy as not portraying them as terrorists, that’s an awfully low standard.

I suspect that part of the hesitancy to point these things out is an emerging fear to criticize people of color. That fear stops dialogue — it screeches it to a halt. No one should feel obligated to like or agree with someone because of their race, gender or sexual orientation. To do so would distill the power of all parties involved. More importantly, when a film is made to provide social commentary, even if it wasn’t the main purpose, the rest of the world can, and must, weigh in. Dialogue and dissent shouldn’t shut down just because the party at the other end is a minority; it’s almost as bad as silencing them for their opinions.

Writing this, it’s clear that the alternative to movies like “The Big Sick” are those that show South Asians as caricatures. And while there’s a lot of progress to be made with showing minorities on the big screen, what has been achieved through this film is momentum. Now, South Asian actors have bankability, and movies about them aren’t just for South Asian audiences anymore. However, viewers must not settle. Now that the ball is rolling, it is imperative that films about minorities become more nuanced. It’s not just exposure to different cultures that matters — it’s about getting the details right. To get them wrong is arguably as bad as failing to discuss them at all.

Written by: Samvardhini Sridharan — smsridharan@ucdavis.edu

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