Kumail Nanjiani was following a well-trodden path when he came to the United States from Karachi for college, majoring in computer science (though he did muddy the waters a bit by co-majoring in philosophy) and then working as an I.T. guy (though, he says, he wasn’t much good at it). But somewhere along the way he strayed from the path. He traded Islam for atheism; became a stand-up comic, writer, and actor with a talent for appearing in zeitgeist-y shows like The Colbert Report, Key & Peele, and Silicon Valley; and married an American woman who’s neither Pakistani nor Muslim.
The Big Sick, a smart, emotionally honest rom-com that Nanjiani co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, is a fictionalized retelling of their courtship, which started as a guilty secret he kept from his parents, as his mother set him up with a series of nice Pakistani-American girls in hopes of arranging a marriage. In New York this week to promote the film, Nanjiani talked to me about how his relationship with Emily has made him a better man, the pros and cons of arranged marriage, and whether he might be a desi Sidney Poitier.
I have this theory that you’re the desi Sidney Poitier, or one of them. There may be a couple others, like Aziz Ansari, maybe Kal Penn.
[Laughs] No! Really? Guess who’s coming to dinner! That would be great.
Poitier was countering negative stereotypes about black people in the 20th century, which he did by being regally charming and hyper-civilized. And you are countering stereotypes about Muslims in the 21st century, which you do by being charming in a funny, approachable way—and by being really into the cool-nerd part of American culture, which is a very millennial thing.
Yeah, well it’s not like I chose to try to do that stuff—
No, and I don’t think Poitier did either. But I think you both got kind of anointed by Hollywood or the culture at large to do it.
Oh. Wow! I think that it might be part of it. [Laughs] “He doesn’t look like us, but he likes the stuff we like, so that’s something. He plays video games—probably more than us!”
You’ve played a lot with subverting stereotypes, like in your response to a heckler in The Big Sick, where you basically say: “You got me! I’m a terrorist! I’m working as a stand-up comic because it’s a good way to stay out of sight.”
I actually had to come up with that line because I would get heckled with racist stuff in real life while doing stand-up. The first time that somebody heckled me like that, I was, like, stunned. I didn’t know what to do. Then it happened again. And I was stunned again. I think it was after the second or third time where I was, like, all right—just to feel comfortable, I’m going to have to come up with a line that I can say [back in response].
When somebody heckles you with racist stuff, everyone in the crowd hates them, but they also want you to respond and take back control of the room. That’s very important. The audience has to feel safe, like “This person knows what they’re doing.” And if the comedian gets rattled, even though they’re on the comedian’s side, it makes the audience feel unsafe—and it makes them feel bad for the comedian, which isn’t a good look. There’s no recovering from that. So I came up with that line, and if someone would say something racist to me, I would say that line, people would love it, I’d take back control of the room, they would hate that guy, and I would move on.
The scene in the movie was written as the genesis of that moment, where I’ve had racist stuff yelled at me, but I haven’t figured out how to deal with it. In this scene you see my character figure out how to take control of it for the first time. And then he loses control, because Holly Hunter goes, you know—she goes awesome. Not insane, awesome.
Speaking of Holly Hunter, the parents play a much bigger and more nuanced role in this movie than usual in a rom com. I liked that, partly because it levels the playing field a bit between the two kinds of marriage your character is thinking about.
One thing I’ve learned after being married for many years is that marriage is a joining of two families, not just two people. So things are likely to go much better if the two families have similar values and get along, which is a lot of what arranged marriage seems to be about. We romanticize romantic love in our culture because we’re all about individualism, but a lot of other cultures see people first as part of a family, not as individuals.
So I thought it was interesting that in this film you weren’t able to commit to this woman until you had met her parents and bonded with them over caring for her when she was so ill. In real life, do you think you would have married Emily if you and her parents hadn’t gotten along?
I honestly don’t know. I always go, “Even if you hadn’t gotten sick, I think we would have ended up together,” and Emily goes “I’m not so sure,” because her understanding of me at that point was: “This is a guy who will never stand up to his family.” So, I don’t know. But I think what you said is exactly right. Arranged marriage is more of a pact between families, but one of the things in our movie is that even with “love” marriages, as we call them, it’s still two families coming together. That’s still important. It should be a consideration in a way that it isn’t because people are always, like you said, “Soulmate! I will fight for the one! Love conquers all!” It’s just a simplistic way, I think, of looking at it. I think it’s why a lot of relationships fail, is because people mistake passion for love and they don’t consider all the other stuff that goes into being in a long relationship with someone.
People don’t really think of relationships as changing. They think: “We’re together, and that’s it.” With Emily and I, Emily always says the relationship is almost like a separate thing, and it needs to be worked on and it needs to evolve and change as you evolve and change, because you don’t stay the same person. That’s kind of how we wanted to set [the film] apart a little bit from all the other rom coms, because other rom coms end when the couple gets together, but the more interesting stuff happens after that, when the couple’s revealing themselves to each other.
Kumail and Emily sleep together in the first five minutes. Everything happens right after that, like trying to not see each other—the moments where you give a little piece of yourself and the other person is supposed to reciprocate. The first act is the story of Emily doing that and Kumail not being able to.