Sunday, 30 July 2017

Movie Review: The Big Sick

(Some mild spoilers ahead, although this isn't really a mystery story that can be ruined by spoilers.)

I first heard about this movie from a friend's positive post on Facebook, and I saw it at the movies earlier tonight.

The Big Sick - if you haven't seen this movie, do so at once

To most people, The Big Sick would seem to fit into the rom-com genre, but to me, it was much more than that.

For a start, it's not fiction. Not only is this the true story of Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, the cultural conflict that strikes at their relationship is one that is playing out right at this moment across thousands of immigrant families in Western countries. That cultural conflict is something that fills me with indignation, and I'll return to that later after I've discussed the movie itself.

Rarely have I seen such a tight script, because the movie moves from scene to scene without a single boring moment. There's humour, there are witty conversations, there's emotion and there are some important questions to ponder, and they're all seamlessly blended together into a smooth-flowing narrative. My only disappointment was when the movie ended. I wanted to keep watching!

As a South Asian myself (although importantly, not a Pakistani or a Muslim), I was able to emotionally straddle both the worlds depicted here - the Western and the non-Western. I must say that Western societies are relatively guileless in the way they approach the world. The older, non-Western cultures may seem to be richer in their traditions, but they're also saddled with baggage that only they believe to be a strength. The depiction of the Pakistani family's superficial integration into Western society was authentic (they all spoke fluent English and used Western cultural idioms effortlessly), as was the line they drew at intermarriage.

Kumail's character developed as the movie progressed, and he was a pleasant surprise. Initially, he seemed to be just a smooth talker with no more than a physical interest in bedding as many girls as he could seduce. But as time went on, he displayed a more serious and caring side. Zoe Kazan as Emily (with her surname changed to Gardner for the movie) was extremely cute and endearing. She seemed somewhat young for her character, and this vaguely disturbed me. Anupam Kher struck the right note as Kumail's father. I personally dislike Kher for his political views, but have to admit that as an actor, he's reliably pitch-perfect. Adeel Akhtar as Kumail's brother was convincing too. However, Zenobia Shroff as Kumail's mother seemed more of a caricature than a three-dimensional character. That was probably the one tiny flaw in the movie.

Kumail Nanjiani, who plays himself and tells his own real-life story

The endearing Zoe Kazan as Emily Gardner

Ray Romano as Emily's father Terry, and Holly Hunter as mother Beth, portrayed such realistic and believable characters that I believe they did more than Kumail to make the movie gripping and authentic at the same time. They were amazingly real people.

Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in a masterful performance as Emily's parents

Something that may slip past unnoticed is the heartwarming camaraderie among stand-up comedians, even though they are in competition for recognition and career progress. I really liked the scenes of interaction between Kumail and his comedian friends.

One minor character I had a lot of sympathy for was Khadija played by Vella Lovell (who surprisingly is not of South Asian descent in spite of her convincing appearance). If Kumail had not been involved with Emily already, Khadija would have been a good match for him. Arranged marriages are terrible when taken to extremes (coercion and in-breeding are two obvious negatives), but they can also make for some excellent matches between people who would not otherwise have met. The brief and poignant scene with Khadija hinted at a possible alternative pairing in a parallel universe that could have worked out very well.

Vella Lovell as Khadija - Ms Right in a parallel universe

And now to return to my feelings of indignation.

I cannot understand why people would migrate from their native countries to a Western one if they aren't open to the possibility that their children may marry someone from another community. If they're so closed-minded, they should simply stay home! It strikes me as terribly selfish and bigoted that many immigrants look upon Western societies as existing merely to provide them a safe, stable and comfortable living, but not as an equally respectable culture that could influence them. I've personally seen this attitude among many Indians in Australia. We want homes in the most upmarket areas, and we expect to experience no discrimination in our careers, but we want our children to marry only within the Indian community. I have no hesitation in calling this attitude bigotry.

And it's this question that is left unresolved at the end of the movie. Sure, the couple have a happy reconciliation, but Kumail is estranged from his family. We don't see them come around, and so they don't learn anything valuable and grow as people. This is one of the worst aspects of multiculturalism as it is practised. It's all take and no give. I have to marvel at the tolerance of the West towards its insular immigrants.

As I said, this was much more than a movie or a simple rom-com to me. It addresses a very real and disturbing phenomenon - the bigotry of immigrants towards their adoptive society, which is far more prevalent but far less spoken about than the racism that immigrants may face from Westerners.

For a rivetting tale, authentic and endearing characters, and a thought-provoking set of questions, I give this movie 4.5 stars out of 5.
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