“The Big Sick” tells a tale of love and immigrant families

By Kevin Song
New York City, NY

Based on the real-life experience of actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani, ‘The Big Sick’ tells the story of Kumail’s struggles living as a comedian and part-time Uber driver in Chicago. Kumail meets a girl named Emily at one of his shows, and the two embark on a turbulent relationship.

But Kumail is simultaneously struggling with another crucial relationship. Throughout the entire film, Kumail clashes with his parents and their conservative beliefs. His parents fully expect him to marry a fellow Pakistani woman, so his mother brings different girls home every day, all in hopes of seducing Kumail into marriage. Of course, Kumail falls for Emily, a white woman, and he is left to go about his relationship in secrecy.

Kumail’s fears and worries are shared by a vast number of Americanized immigrants thrust into a division between two cultures — one that is modern and American, and another that is representative of their parents’ traditional cultures. Kumail faces several challenges as he pursues his interracial relationship, especially as his parents express constant disapproval bordering on vitriol.

The pinnacle of Kumail’s frustrating and misunderstood relationship with his parents occurs when they officially declare Kumail’s exoneration from the family. After he turns down yet another arranged date, Kumail’s parents initiate a heated confrontation that reveals candid sentiments and truths from both sides. Kumail finally admits his relationship with Emily, and his parents vehemently object, ending with a chilling statement from his mother: “You are not my son.”

Sure, the acting and writing are humorous, but ‘The Big Sick’ offers real and serious social commentary on generational differences. There is a striking juxtaposition between the forms of interaction and intimacy between Kumail and Emily’s families. Emily is genuinely comfortable with her parents; she is offered only unconditional love and support from them throughout the film. As a result, she struggles to comprehend the different family dynamics that have ruled her boyfriend’s entire life. One can see Kumail’s painful reluctance when trying to shroud his family life from Emily, afraid that a girl like her would not understand. Above all, Kumail copes with guilt, knowing that his parents aren’t some monstrous individuals out to suppress any form of love. Though they are imposing, they only seek to share their vision of happiness with their son. Of course, good intentions are never received equally by everyone.  

The challenges that children of immigrant parents face over their cultural beliefs are pervasive in American society today, and ‘The Big Sick’ clearly portrays how feelings of isolation emerge when these children are surrounded by peers with vastly different backgrounds. Mixed with humor and just the right amount of austerity, ‘The Big Sick’ gives an inside perspective of the honest plights of immigrant families.

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