Thursday, June 22, 2017
Interview: Kumail Nanjiani on The Big Sick's real-life love story
Kumail Nanjiani was following a well-trodden path when he came to the United States from Karachi for college, majoring in computer science (though he did muddy the waters a bit by co-majoring in philosophy) and then working as an I.T. guy (although, he says, he wasn't much good at it). But somewhere along the way he strayed from the path. He traded Islam for atheism; became a stand-up comic, writer, and actor with a talent for appearing in zeitgeist-y shows like The Colbert Report, Key & Peele, and Silicon Valley; and married an American woman who's neither Pakistani nor Muslim.
The Big Sick, a smart, emotionally honest rom-com that Nanjiani co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, is a fictionalized retelling of their courtship, which started as a guilty secret he kept from his parents, as his mother set him up with a series of nice Pakistani-American girls in hopes of arranging a marriage. In New York this week to promote the film, Nanjiani talked to me about how his relationship with Emily has made him a better man, the pros and cons of arranged marriage, and whether he might be a desi Sidney Poitier.
I have this theory that you're the desi Sidney Poitier, or one of them. There may be a couple others, like Aziz Ansari, maybe Kal Penn.
[Laughs] No! Really? Guess who's coming to dinner! That would be great.
Poitier was countering negative stereotypes about black people in the 20th century, which he did by being regally charming and hyper-civilized. And you are countering stereotypes about Muslims in the 21st century, which you do by being charming in a funny, approachable way—and by being really into the cool-nerd part of American culture, which is a very millennial thing.
Yeah, well it's not like I chose to try to do that stuff—
No, and I don't think Poitier did either. But I think you both got kind of anointed by Hollywood or the culture at large to do it.
Oh. Wow! I think that it might be part of it. [Laughs] “He doesn't look like us, but he likes the stuff we like, so that's something. He plays video games—probably more than us!”
You've played a lot with subverting stereotypes, like in your response to a heckler in The Big Sick, where you basically say: “You got me! I'm a terrorist! I'm working as a stand-up comic because it's a good way to stay out of sight.”
I actually had to come up with that line because I would get heckled with racist stuff in real life while doing stand-up. The first time that somebody heckled me like that, I was, like, stunned. I didn't know what to do. Then it happened again. And I was stunned again. I think it was after the second or third time where I was, like, all right—just to feel comfortable, I'm going to have to come up with a line that I can say [back in response].
Read the rest in Slant Magazine