Last Wednesday, BAMcinemaFest hosted a screening and panel discussion of The Big Sick, the romantic comedy written by husband and wife duo Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon. Collecting stellar reviews from all corners, the film is shaping up to be an unlikely summer blockbuster, and deservedly so. The Big Sick follows a stand-in for Nanjiani (played by and also named Kumail) trying to break into a career in comedy while balancing a new relationship with Emily, a white American woman, with his family’s expectation that he marry a Pakistani woman. Just as this plot comes to a head, Emily falls into a coma, and Kumail has to work with her parents to take care of her in the hospital. The movie is funny, heartwarming, moving, authentic, and packed with phenomenal performances. Most importantly, it’s based on a true story.
The Big Sick saw a wider release this weekend, and Nanjiani joked often on Wednesday that he was ready to go up against Transformers 5. In a short conversation after the screening, Gordon, Nanjiani, and the cast and production team gave a peak a behind the curtain, explaining the differences between the film and real life events and how the people portrayed felt about seeing their stories on the big screen.
The events portrayed in The Big Sick took place 10 years ago; Gordon and Nanjiani began writing the film five years ago. While pitching, Nanjiani brought possessions he had saved from that time in his life to explain the story. Producer Barry Mendel was struck by it, recalling that they were “talismans of what was clearly the most important experience of his life.” He was sold—The Big Sick was on its way.
Much of the panel discussion was dedicated to issues of casting. Portraying real, living people, especially during one of the most dramatic experiences of their life, is tricky. But the cast of The Big Sick accomplishes this with aplomb, especially Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, who play Gordon’s parents. When the subject came up, the cast turned to Romano, who had his anecdote ready. “When Emily’s mother saw the film, she said, ‘You know, Holly Hunter is prettier than me, but your father is more handsome than Ray Romano.” Later, when asked how he approached his role, quipped, “Well, this is how he would do it if he was ugly.”
Jokes aside, Romano’s performance is solid, and he and Hunter both explained the ways that they went beyond the facts of Gordon’s illness to develop more dynamic characters. On Romano’s end, that meant developing additional backstory for Gordon’s dad (Terry). Hunter, meanwhile, worked with Nanjiani and Gordon to make scenes that better reflected the mental state of a mother with a daughter in a coma. Hunter talked about how exciting it was to work that way. “We developed the movie completely together, even though it really happened to you,” she said, still sounding astonished by the fact. “This was the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had.”
The Big Sick is better for it. While every actor shines, Hunter really steals the show. It’s only June, but her performance is already generating whispers about awards season.
Indian film legend Anupam Kher, who plays Nanjiani’s father, was also present. He talked briefly about the visa troubles he endured trying to film the movie, his 500th. A charming factoid: when Nanjiani told his father about The Big Sick, his father said he would want Anupam Kher to play him. Nanjiani assumed that would never happen, but here we are.
You could imagine this being a difficult movie for Nanjiani’s and Gordon’s parents to watch, but at the end of the day, they’re fans. “It’s jarring, but they’re very proud of us,” Gordon explained. Her parents in particular remarked: “It’s way better when you see it on the big screen.”
It’s better because Gordon and Nanjiani infuse their story with humor and joy, despite the frightening part of their lives that inspired it. Nanjiani shared that Gordon was in a coma for eight days in real life, though it wasn’t so long in the film. Other tweaks were made for the sake of storytelling—Nanjiani’s family, for example, was far away in New Jersey while Gordon was in a coma, and they didn’t learn about how serious their relationship was until after they were married.
Reframed for the screen, however, their story becomes something that can inspire and amuse anyone and everyone. At times irreverent and genuinely moving at others, it’s a modern take on family and love. The Big Sick is one of most refreshing rom coms in years, a must see for 2017. Nanjiani and Gordon clearly have as much chemistry as collaborators as they do as a couple.
Photos by Rebecca Greenfield