By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – When Pakistani actor Kumail Nanjiani and his American wife Emily Gordon wrote a film about the surreal circumstances that brought them together, little did they expect that their love story would be put under a political spotlight.
“The Big Sick” explores Nanjiani’s cultural conflict as a Pakistani Muslim comedian in a post-9/11 America. His life is further complicated when he falls in love with Gordon, played by Zoe Kazan, and goes against his family’s wishes that he marry a Pakistani woman.
The film, out in limited U.S. release on Friday, is “coming out at a time when there’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, there’s a lot of Islamophobia,” Nanjiani said in an interview.
“By depicting a Muslim family as like normal people, that’s its big political statement,” said Nanjiani, who is also the first Pakistani leading man in a Hollywood romantic comedy.
The movie arrives after U.S. President Donald Trump’s call during his 2016 election campaign for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”
Now in the White House, Trump is seeking to ban travelers from six Muslim-majority countries in a case awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Nanjiani, 39, best known for playing snarky programmer Dinesh in HBO’s comedy “Silicon Valley,” and Gordon said they did not predict the film would wade into a hot-button issue.
“It obviously feels so weirdly timely but it also does have this expectation on it that it really wasn’t built for,” Nanjiani said.
“Really, it’s just a love story.”
In “The Big Sick,” Nanjiani’s family struggle with his decision to pursue comedy as they try to arrange a suitable marriage, while he secretly dates the smart, nerdy Emily.
Nanjiani’s world is upended when Emily falls into a coma with an undiagnosed illness and he keeps a bedside vigil alongside her parents.
“I think that Kumail is trying to show how similar their lives are to people who already live here in some respects. They’re looking for love and they’re trying to be happy and they’re also dealing with their culture,” Judd Apatow, the film’s producer said.
In one scene, Nanjiani is heckled during his stand-up comedy routine by a man calling him a terrorist. In another, Ray Romano, who plays Gordon’s father, asks Kumail about his stance on the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
“Anti. It was a tragedy,” Nanjiani said, before quipping, “I mean, we lost 19 of our best guys.”
“The Big Sick” arrives as Hollywood films such as “Get Out” and “Wonder Woman” are starting to break the white, male-dominated movie mold and show that audiences will pay to see films with minority leads.
“It’s important for kids to see themselves in the stuff they watch. But more than that, I think it’s important that people from different points of view are behind the camera telling the stories, writing them, directing them,” Nanjiani said.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Richard Chang)