In “The Big Sick,” Kumail Nanjiani plays a version of himself dealing with the challenges of being a young Pakistani in America. But that hasn’t stopped some people in the South Asian community from voicing concerns about the film’s trailer. The actor and co-screenwriter of the movie rose to its defense, with help from the cast, during a press day for the movie in Manhattan on Tuesday, responding to online reactions to the trailer by urging critics to withhold judgement until they’ve seen the movie.
Nanjiani based the story on his own experiences with former girlfriend and current wife Emily Gordon (also his co-writer), who’s played in the movie by Zoe Kazan. Over the course of the film, budding comedian Nanjiani meets Gordon at a comedy club and starts dating her, but their relationship suffers when he resists telling his traditionalist parents that he’s dating a white woman. Over the course of the movie, Nanjiani dodges attempts by his mother to set him up on dates with a Pakistani woman; one of these awkward encounters is excerpted in the trailer.
During a press conference, Kazan and the other actors in attendance were asked how much they knew about the tradition of arranged marriage before getting involved in the project. “I think I learned things through our process,” she said. “I have seen some things online with South Asian women asking where their representation was in this movie, just off the trailer. I think that the movie has a better representation than the trailer does. Give the movie a chance.”
She added that “The Big Sick” was filling a major void in the U.S. market. “There aren’t enough roles for women of color in general in our industry, and a lot of that falls to the responsibility to people who have to take the steps to finance films that provide a wider representation,” she said. “Sometimes, that conversation can get very industry-oriented, like, ‘We have to give those actors or actresses a chance,’ but we have to think about what kind of stories we can tell when you extend further. I think it’s better for humanity to have a wider representation in our culture, because not only does it allow those people to feel more represented onscreen, but it allows people who feel very foreign from, let’s say, the experience of a Pakistani-American, to have a window into that world and maybe a tiny bit of empathy.”
Bollywood star Anupam Kher, who plays Nanjiani’s father in the film, added that the scene in the trailer featuring Nanjiani’s angry reaction to the woman his mother pushes on him speaks to the film’s themes. “These are the people that brought him up in the last 25 years and he just sort of discards them,” he said. “That quality makes your character much more richer and more endearing.” (Kher added that he took on the role, his 500th screen credit, because Nanjiani’s own father insisted he track Kher down.)
Later, Nanjiani said he understood why some South Asian woman might have an issue with the trailer, but was troubled by some of the outrage he was seeing on social media. “I hate when it leads them to write a whole thing where they’re saying ‘Kumail doesn’t see brown women as real people,’” he said. “First of all, you don’t have to watch the movie, but you can’t have an opinion on it and express it with confidently without seeing it. That’s fine, don’t see it, but then you don’t get to say that this is the political agenda of the movie.”