'Big Sick' Creators Nanjiani And Gordon On Turning Their Courtship Into A Movie

Jun 23, 2017
Originally published on August 11, 2017 12:19 pm

On the surface, comedian Kumail Nanjiani's new movie, The Big Sick, sounds like a rom-com: He plays a struggling stand-up comedian, also named Kumail, who meets a cute girl, Emily, at one of his shows. Sparks fly and they start dating. But then she finds out he's been keeping her a secret from his Pakistani family; there's a huge fight and they break up. But that's just the beginning.

Nanjiani wrote the movie with his wife, Emily Gordon, and they based it on their actual relationship. It's called The Big Sick because Gordon fell ill and needed to be put into a medically induced coma. Gordon says writing about the coma for the movie helped her understand what happened while she was under.

"I very much got to dig in and interview my family," she says. "Kumail and I had endless conversations about what that time was actually like and little tiny moments, and a lot of those made it into the movie."

The film also explores the tension between Nanjiani and his family over him dating a white woman instead of a Pakistani. Nanjiani says a lot of the script was inspired by his parents — but not everything. In the movie, when Nanjiani's character finally tells his family about his girlfriend and her coma, his mother's reaction is brutal. "You are not my son," she tells him. But in real life, Nanjiani says, "My mom was immediately very concerned for Emily. And then, when Emily came out of the coma and was OK, then my mom was like, 'How could you do this to us?!'"


Interview Highlights

On making sure no one looked like a bad guy in the scene where Kumail comes clean to his family

Nanjiani: This scene was written as sort of, you know, me taking my stand and telling them the truth and I sort of tell them everything about all the stuff I disagree with them on. And then the guy who plays my dad in the movie, Anupam Kher, actually says, "The American dream isn't about doing whatever you want to do. You still have to care about your family, you have to care about the people around you. You don't live in a vacuum." So we really, really did a lot of work in making sure there were no bad guys in the movie and that their perspective is just as valid and just as articulated as mine is.

On his parents' conflicted feelings about their relationship

Nanjiani: When I was sort of telling my parents how I felt about all this stuff, I could feel them being in America and wanting to stay true to their culture, and I would see that brushing up against them wanting to just love me and be my parents. And at some point, they, I think, decided that their love for me was bigger than whatever sense of obligation they felt in this specific respect.

Gordon: I don't think it was a decision on their part. I don't think there was any world where they were like, "You know, we thought it through and we've decided we love our son." They love you so, so much. ...

Nanjiani: Well, I really thought that I would get disowned by my parents, because that is the narrative that you're sort of raised with. And I was shocked. I didn't give them credit for changing, because they're still changing. You know, when you're a kid you look at them — you're like, "That's those people and they are these people and these are the people they'll always be." But going through this and now they've been in America a little more than a decade, I see them changing as people. I see them becoming different people and I hadn't really considered that.

On their experiences with rebellion

Gordon: I'm from the South. I'm a very rebellious kid. And so I, from the age of 15 on, was kind of like, to my parents, "Just take it, this is who I am. Haha!" And I kind of naively, when we started dating, was like, "Just tell your parents how you feel. They'll understand, they have to. You're a grown-up." And I think it's, you know, even after 10 years I'm still understanding the nuances of it and realizing that this was never about me, this wasn't about how much he cared about me; but this was kind of his own journey that he needed to go through. ...

Nanjiani: Where I'm from, we don't have the narrative of children rebelling against their parents. What I realized going through this stuff in real life was, you know, we had that narrative of if you sort of marry outside the culture, we don't talk to you anymore. I have the one uncle and he was like the cautionary tale. You knew about him since you were a kid, you know, he was sort of the absent uncle. With my parents, what helped them, I think, accept it was that they were here. They were in America; they weren't in Pakistan. I think it would have been much harder for them over there.

On their advice for young couples who are going through what they went through

Gordon: I would say, as the white person in that, listen more than you speak. And understand that it's not about you, and just have it be a negotiation, kind of, as things go on. Keep those lines of communication open.

Lessons from being a sick person: Appreciate your body, that it's working on a daily basis, because sometimes it stops working and you have to really, really take care of it.

Nanjiani: I think, yeah, what Emily said. Understand that there are different ways of doing things and when two representatives from two different cultures come together, it can be beautiful, but it is also quite challenging.

Radio producer Anjuli Sastry and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani's new movie "The Big Sick" sounds like a rom-com on the surface. He's a struggling stand-up comedian who meets a cute girl at one of his shows. Sparks fly. Then they have a huge fight because she finds out he's keeping her a secret from his family. They break up. That's just the beginning.

Nanjiani wrote the movie with his wife, Emily Gordon, and they based it on their actual relationship. It's called "The Big Sick" because Gordon fell ill and needed to be put into a medically induced coma. Writing about it for the movie helped her understand what happened while she was under.

EMILY GORDON: I very much got to dig in and interview my family. Kumail and I had endless conversations about what that time was actually like and little tiny moments, and a lot of those made it into the movie.

CORNISH: And at the heart of the film - the tension between Kumail Nanjiani and his own family. They wanted him to be a lawyer and marry a Pakistani woman, as seen in this conversation he has in the movie with his brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG SICK")

KUMAIL NANJIANI: (As Kumail) I have to tell you something, bhai.

ADEEL AKHTAR: (As Naveed) Here we go.

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) I've been dating this girl.

AKHTAR: (As Naveed) Acha.

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) She's white.

AKHTAR: (As Naveed) Oh, I thought you were going to say you were involved in a hit and run or you got caught forging some checks - but a white girl - such a cliche.

CORNISH: Kumail Nanjiani says a lot of what was said in the movie was inspired by his family.

NANJIANI: My mom was visiting us on set, and during a scene, she's - I heard her laughing. She, like, ruined the take.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

GORDON: She did.

NANJIANI: And I was like, why are you laughing so hard? And she's like, we had that conversation; I said that to you. I was like, yeah, you did.

CORNISH: All right, so with that in mind, this is a scene that you have with your mother basically explaining that you are dating somebody.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG SICK")

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) I'm in love with someone. I am, and her name is Emily. And she's going to be a therapist. And right now, she's very sick, but I couldn't tell you that. It makes me so sad that I couldn't tell you any of that. And I know Islam has been really good for you, and it has made you good people. But I don't know what I believe. I just need to figure it out on my own.

ZENOBIA SHROFF: (As Sharmeen) You're not my son.

CORNISH: So this is a really brutal line that made me think if I had to then watch this movie with my parents...

NANJIANI: Yes.

GORDON: (Laughter).

NANJIANI: So about that line - when I told my mom I'm dating a girl; she's in a coma, in real life, my mom was immediately very concerned for Emily. And then when Emily came out of the coma and was OK, then my mom was like, how could you do this to us?

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: So...

GORDON: But I will say she never, never once, never came close to her disowning you, I would say.

NANJIANI: No, no.

CORNISH: But it made me wonder, you know, the difficulty in how you try and balance telling your story without making your own culture look bad or heartless. I mean how do you create the scenario where you're trying to have this conversation with them without making them look like stereotypes?

NANJIANI: Right. So this scene was written as sort of, you know, me, like, taking my stand and telling them the truth. And I sort of tell them everything about all the stuff I disagree with them on. And then the guy who plays my dad in the movie, Anupam Kher, actually says, the American Dream isn't about doing whatever you want to do. You still have to care about your family. You have to care about the people around...

GORDON: Yeah, you're not in a vacuum.

NANJIANI: ...You, your country.

GORDON: Yeah.

NANJIANI: Yeah, you don't live in a vacuum. So we really, really did a lot of work in making sure there were no bad guys in the movie and that their perspective is just as valid and just as articulated as mine is.

CORNISH: And the flip side of that is the Emily character. When she finds out, that she's - he hasn't told his parents about her, she is so upset. This is before she falls ill. She came off as unfair, and I realized that was because of my own bias as...

NANJIANI: That's...

CORNISH: ...Like, a child of immigrants. I was like, you don't even know...

GORDON: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: ...You know? But did you, with some distance, think differently about...

GORDON: Oh, absolutely (laughter). I'm from the South. I'm a very rebellious kid. And so I from the age of 15 on was kind of like, to my parents, just take it. This is who I am - ha, ha. And I kind of naively when we started dating was like, just tell your parents how you feel. They'll understand. They have to. You're a grown-up.

And I think it's - you know, even after 10 years, I'm still understanding the nuances of it and realizing that this was never about me. This wasn't about how much he cared about me. But this was kind of his own journey that he needed to go through. So I definitely think she's being unfair, but I also - I hope you kind of see from her perspective, too, that, like, this was a lot to kind of dump on a person. And to be a secret is never fun. So I...

NANJIANI: Yeah.

GORDON: It's nuanced on both sides (laughter).

NANJIANI: Well, what you were saying was - where are your parents from?

CORNISH: Jamaica.

NANJIANI: Jamaica.

CORNISH: And I remember once I said, oh, you hurt my feelings because this was a word I had learned in school - feelings, right?

NANJIANI: Yeah

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And my mother was like, what are you talking about?

NANJIANI: Yeah (laughter).

CORNISH: She just, like, literally paused from yelling at me to be like, I'm unclear...

NANJIANI: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...As to what you mean by this.

NANJIANI: Should I care about this?

CORNISH: (Laughter) Yeah, should I care about this?

NANJIANI: What does the word care mean? Where I'm from, we don't have the narrative of children rebelling against...

GORDON: Yeah.

NANJIANI: ...Their parents. What I realized going through this stuff in real life was, you know, we had that narrative of if you sort of marry outside the culture, we don't talk to you anymore. I have the one uncle, and he was, like, the cautionary tale. And you knew about him since you were a kid. You know, he was sort of the absent uncle. With my parents, what helped them I think accept it was that they were here. They were in America. They weren't in Pakistan. I think it would have been much harder for them over there.

CORNISH: Yeah, with the social pressure of the people around you.

NANJIANI: Yeah. And you do want to balance it because you want to show the pressures that are on them, but you also want to show them being real people.

CORNISH: With your parents, it ends in a - not quite a stalemate, but it's not a - well, she seems amazing.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Welcome back into the fold, right? There's an overture because family is family.

NANJIANI: Right. Well, it sort of ends on step one of - I don't know how many steps there are...

GORDON: We'll figure it out one day.

NANJIANI: ...Because we're not done, yeah.

GORDON: (Laughter).

NANJIANI: When I was sort of telling my parents how I felt about all this stuff, I could feel them being in America and wanting to stay true to their culture. And I would see that brushing up against them wanting to just love me and be my parents. And at some point, they I think decided that their love for me was bigger than whatever sense of obligation they felt in this specific respect.

GORDON: I don't think it was a decision on their part. I don't think there was anywhere where they were like, you know, we've thought it through, and we've decided we love our son. They love you so, so much, and I don't think there was any moment where they were even slightly...

NANJIANI: But I really thought that I would get disowned by my parents because that is the narrative that you're sort of raised with. And I was shocked. I didn't give them credit for changing because they're still changing. You know, when you're a kid, you look at them. You're like, that's those people, and they are these people, and these are the people that they'll always be. But going through this - and now they've been in America a little more than a decade - I see them changing as people. I see them becoming different people. And I hadn't really considered that.

CORNISH: You guys are married now. What would you say to other young people who are maybe in a similar situation? Kind of what lesson have you taken away from it?

GORDON: I would say as the white person in that, listen more than you speak, and understand that it's not about you. And just have it be a negotiation kind of as things go on. Keep those lines of communication open. Lessons from being a sick person - appreciate your body, that it's working on a daily basis because sometimes it stops working, and you have to really, really take care of it.

NANJIANI: I think - yeah, what Emily said - understand that there are different ways of doing things. And when two representatives from two different cultures come together, it can be beautiful, but it is also quite challenging.

CORNISH: Well, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, thank you so much for talking with us.

GORDON: Thank you.

NANJIANI: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ANDREWS SONG, "MUTTON BIRYANI")

CORNISH: "The Big Sick" is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ANDREWS SONG, "MUTTON BIRYANI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.