‘The Big Sick’ gets the diaspora bang-on (Review)

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Film: “The Big Sick”; Director: Michael Showalter; Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff; Rating: ****(4 Stars)

I confess I didn’t know who Kumail Nanjiani was until I saw him in this wonderful life-giving film about love, sickness, healing and cultural assimilation. But that’s okay. Even Anupam Kher, who plays Nanjiani’s father, didn’t know who the latter was until this film.

It is not important when you get to know a person. It is important how well you get to know him.

This is one of the big takeaways fom “The Big Sick” — this season’s big healing film about physical and cultural sickness.

A very informative chunk of the storytelling goes into establishing remedial rythms between the film’s protagonist Kumail and his future in-laws, played with disarming levity by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. They are in hospital tending to their ailing daughter whose ex-boyfriend Kumail lands up to do a bit of healing himself. It is not a situation that lends itself to satire. No one in their right minds would try to levitate the tragedy.

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Director Michael Showalter balances the inherent ironies of a Pakistani-American’s struggle to shrug off the lable of terrorism with a joyous and immovable feeling of faith in the power to heal through love.

Try it. Triteness is sometimes a gateway to freedom.

What could easily have been a cumbersome self-indulgent journey of a comic stand-up who is hellbent on graduating to a lead riding on his own (admittedly poignant) culturally-challenged love story with his American soul-mate, alchemizes into a magical romantic romp in the raw.

Kumail strips down the terrifying subtext (you know, that entire thing about Muslims being associated with the ‘T’ word). He whittles the politics of extremism down to a series of giggly effulgent gags and jokes, which miraculously work.

Early in the courtship when Emily (the lovely Zoe Kazan) calls Uber for a cab after a night with Kumail, his phone rings.

“Your driver will be with you as soon as he has his pants on,” Kumail drawls in that acquired American accent which makes him sound like Priyanka Chopra in drag.

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You know the jokes are planned to the point where the rehearsed seem improvised. But you go along with Nanjiani’s plans to manipulate our senses, knock down our distrust of cinema based on real-life incidents (specially that one where the real character steps into his reel avatar) and simply snuff out our surplus of cynicism.

Savour, then, the lingering legacy of a nostalgia that seeps into the very cultural vortex of Islamophobia. Kumail doesn’t flinch from 9/11 and ISIS jokes. To him, the all-pervasive power of love and the message of love-conquers-all presides over the politics of his narrative, furnishing it with an inbuilt foolproof device against any attempts to interpret the politics of humanism as inappropriate.

The film has a tremendous transparency and innocence. Nanjiani and Emily (Zoe Kazan) look so much like a real couple that you forget this is a facsimile of the real thing. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents fortify the undercurrents of tragedy with an ineradicable state of grace. Their lunch scene with Kumail in the hospital cafeteria where 9/11 is discussed with unnerving equanimity and furious humour, is a sound example of the pitch-perfect equipoise that this film achieves between telling it like it is and telling it whether we like it or not.

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Our Anupam Kher as Nanjiani’s conservative father brings a sense of burnished cultural pride into the proceedings without prancing into the province of pomposity. You wish there was more of him. But then this is a film about the Pakistani hero exploring his American side, determined to get it right at any cost.

Admirably, “The Big Sick” never makes us uncomfortable about the politics of terrorism that hovers just under the narrative’s blithe surface. The film is way too chilled-out to be squirmy about people who shoot others for pleasure.

Quite clearly, Nanjiani and his director had fun with the shooting of another kind.



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