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Why The Big Sick makes me sick: cinema needs better South Asian role models


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Silicon Valley comedian Kumail Nanjiani has made a semi-autobiographical film about his own love life, The Big Sick.

The film documents the mostly-true story of how he and his wife Emily met, and all the challenges they faced in the early days of their relationship, from serious illness to begrudging parents and cultural hurdles to overcome.  Though I can’t begrudge Nanjiani his success, nor his intentions in making this film, I do begrudge him the message the film sends.

To him it’s simply his personal story, but by putting it out there on the big screen, it becomes representative of the South Asian community. Though there are an increasing number of South Asian artists making a name for themselves in Western media, the number is still so relatively small that every instance of negative representation strikes a huge blow.

Sure, it’s not fair that minority artists are forced to shoulder the responsibility of spokesperson for their people, but it’s a reality in Western media, so to ignore the potential repercussions of your work as a minority artist to me seems disrespectful. 

The biggest issue I have with this film is that Nanjiani’s family and their Pakistani values are not given the respect they should be. Though kids rebelling against their parents’ wishes in matters of love isn’t exactly a new theme, when the relationship at hand is inter-racial, cultural sensitivity is vital. Unfortunately, The Big Sick grants Nanjiani himself more time in conversation with Emily’s parents than with his own. Whilst Emily’s parents get screen-time discussing how much they love their daughter and just want the best for her, Nanjiani’s parents are reduced to stereotypes whose attempts at arranging a marriage for him are always the butt of the joke. 

Rather than representing immigrant children as caught between two cultures, both of which they value, Nanjiani presents himself as pulling away entirely from his family’s culture and towards Western culture. There is no middle ground at all, and no opportunity granted to showcase the positive value of Pakistani traditions. 

South Asian cultures revolve around family - and by extension marriage - so it isn’t unfair to say that a lot of diaspora kids struggle to reconcile South Asian cultural attitudes towards relationships with the Western cultural external environment they are raised in. The issue with The Big Sick, in my opinion, is that the experiences Nanjiani depicts in the film are dated. For his generation, who immigrated as teens, assimilating into Western culture was paramount for self-preservation. Though race-relations are no doubt tense now, those few decades have resulted in a new generation of young people who are looking to find a way back to their roots. 

What The Big Sick and Nanjiani’s story does is validate the shame we felt as children who were embarrassed to be different from our white friends. Had the film been more explicitly set a few decades ago, it would have become a “period piece” of sorts — a snapshot of the cultural reality then. But instead, it’s pitched as modern and universal, implying that even now the norm is for South Asian youth to pull away from their culture, when in my experience our generation faces the opposite problem of regretting the distance we feel from it.

The Big Sick was made with white audiences in mind, not brown ones. The tone constantly belittles and mocks and invalidates all the brown characters except Nanjiani himself, who continuously and vocally reassures the audience that he isn’t like the rest of his family, he isn’t one of those brown people — just think of him as a white guy with a brown family and a tan! 

Another dangerous trope the film perpetuates is the incessant devaluing of brown women. Colonialist impact on South Asian culture led to the prizing of white or pale skin, and all too often it is brown women who are held to Western beauty standards, and always fall short in comparison to white women.

The result is brown men valuing the image having a white girlfriend provides them over brown women. The result is toxic from all angles — brown men feeling superior, and brown women being belittled and ignored. The Big Sick makes this direct comparison by representing brown women as an endless stream of drop-ins and photographs, in contrast with the brilliant sweet funny fully-fleshed out Emily. No wonder those cardboard cut-out women didn’t stand a chance against her. 

A final topic of complaint that focusses on a different angle. Nanjiani’s brother in the film is played by British-Pakistani actor Adeel Akhtar, who you may recognise from Four Lions or more recently from the BBC drama Murdered by my Father. As the title suggests, that drama depicted a British-Muslim girl whose secret relationship ended with her being brutally honour-killed by her father.

Whilst South-Asian women in Western dramas are murdered by their families for having boyfriends, media like The Big Sick and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None exemplify that South-Asian men in Western dramas in the same situation end up with quirky rom-coms. This represents the typical attitude from both within the South Asian community and externally, that whilst the men are able to “progress” by distancing themselves from their culture, the women are stuck as helpless victims to South Asian barbarism. All of this reinforces and validates prejudice against South Asians, as well as pushing South Asian youth away from their own culture. 

It’s sad to see that Nanjiani, with such a huge opportunity for South Asians to see themselves positively represented on a huge scale, actually used his platform to proudly distance himself from us. He adds insult to injury by encouraging white audiences to laugh at our culture too.

I wish Nanjiani nothing but success in future, but I also hope he considers the responsibility that he has through the position he is in. If he had taken a second to think about the impact of this story on South Asian youth, perhaps he might have come to the conclusion that positive reinforcement and celebration of the culture that we’re part of is more important to broadcast to the world than his autobiography. At least, I hope so. 

And to any South Asians out there, if you’re looking for representation where we’re on the inside of the jokes and not the butt of them, try Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special Homecoming King, and listen to Riz Ahmed’s band the Swet Shop Boys’ album CashmereThose are the kind of voices I’m proud to have represent us. 

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