It feels weird to say, but the movie that challenged me the most this past year was “The Big Sick.” Yes, that one. The charming indie romantic comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Zoe Kazan (“The Deuce”).
Here, for once, was a positive portrayal of Muslims, right? They’re not terrorists, at least — the lowest possible bar to clear for representation of our people — and the guy is… dating a white woman? That seems kind of progressive. I watched it and loved it. It was funny in the right spots, tender in the others, a warm and intimate study of a relationship that requires more nuance in practice than in its idealized conception. And that’s not even getting into how good Ray Romano (“Get Shorty”) is here.
But in my post-film discussions with the other fellows of my ilk — “brown people,” as one might like to call them — I was disheartened. I rushed to extoll the film’s virtues to two of my friends (both Muslim, South Asian women) only to find them disenchanted at best, disgusted at worst. I texted my sister immediately after, expecting wholehearted enthusiasm but instead receiving a reply full of accusatory disappointment. And on a quick phone call with my mother, I found that while my appreciation for Kumail Nanjiani had bloomed, Mrs. Chollampat’s greatest fear had been actualized on the silver screen: that her son (me, for those of you keeping score) would eventually marry a white girl.
This is the worst feeling.
I hate liking something, and then finding out it’s “problematic.” It sucks. You feel like an asshole. But, determined to continue liking this movie, I engaged in what the kids these days call “civil discourse.”
My friends’ and family’s main issues with “The Big Sick,” it turned out, are ones of representation. The South Asian women — particularly the mother — are portrayed as incorrigible, shrew-like, alien; Nanjiani’s self-titled character, however, is the paragon of the assimilated immigrant. Kumail is afforded the agency that the women of the story, save for one brief exchange of dialogue with a potential suitor, are not. I’d like to counter that this is an autobiographical story and it’s simply the tale of his life that he’s telling, but I can’t. That’s too shallow. It’s a valid critique and one that I failed to acknowledge.
What struck me most, however, and what challenged me to my core (I know, this is just a Sundance romantic comedy, can you believe it?), was “The Big Sick”’s portrayal of Muslims. It’s funny, now that I think about it. Remember just, like 10 or so years ago, when the only work an Arab guy could get in Hollywood was some dude named Abdul bin-[insert “extremely al-Qaeda operative” surname here] on “24”? Or this classic: We cut to a Middle Eastern country (which we know is Middle Eastern because, duh, the Muslim call to prayer is playing in the background!) where a guy finishes up on his prayer rug before proceeding to strap a bomb on his chest and blow up a bustling market?
Contrast that with the notable prayer-rug scene in “The Big Sick.” Kumail’s mother tells him to pray before dinner, so he grabs the prayer rug, heads downstairs, throws on a timer for five minutes and sits and watches videos on his phone. I’m sorry, Umma, but I have literally gone through this exact process before.
Where’s the happy medium, though? If the two possibilities for Muslims onscreen toggle between deranged terrorist and guy who fakes prayer and drinks at comedy clubs, what does that mean for the comfortably religious Muslim American family?
It’s clear “The Big Sick” was sanitized, in some way, to appeal to the Sundance crowd. Kumail abandons any and all semblance of Islam in his quest to court (and then care for) Emily. His culture of arranged marriages and stilted family dinners and overbearing Muslim mothers and the dreaded prospect of a wife with an Indian accent is, for the most part, portrayed as wholly undesirable.
There’s room to grow, then. I don’t mean to defame Kumail Nanjiani’s relationship with his religion; God (I should probably say Allah here) only knows I’m not a perfect Muslim. But it’s clear that Islam isn’t at the same level of widespread understanding in film as other cultures; there’s less room for error.
The “lapsed Catholic” is a genre unto itself. So, too, is Woody Allen’s and Larry David’s “self-deprecating Jew” filmography. We can’t afford to show ourselves to the American audience at this nebulous space between devout fundamentalism — which is inevitably positioned as antithetical to the entire American experiment — and a complete lack of adherence to religion. For the average moviegoer, Muslims, as they are in so many other facets of contemporary life, are held to a different standard than everyone else: They must occupy a binary while everyone else is afforded the range of spiritual possibility. It all, of course, boils down to that tiresome cliché of assimilation vs. acculturation.
Perhaps there’s no better recent example of this abstract conflict than, ironically enough, last year’s Democratic National Convention. Khizr and Ghazala Khan stood on the stage in Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, frantically waving the Constitution as they lamented the loss of their soldier son, killed in Iraq and posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, who was finally laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, draped in an American flag. And yet, their patriotism was questioned.
I still love “The Big Sick.” I laugh at Kumail’s snarky but loving relationship with his mother; I’m moved by Zoe Kazan’s understated performance. It’s a romantic comedy about comedians starring a brown Muslim guy that features an incredible 9/11 joke — a film seemingly tailor-made for me. It’s not perfect, I know, but for the Aziz Ansari’s and the Hasan Minhaj’s and the Kumail Nanjiani’s and [insert plural characterization of a female Muslim comedian who will hopefully be just as famous very soon] of the world, it’s a step in the right direction. I’m fine with it.