Last week I went to a screening of The Big Sick, the latest romcom from mega-producer Judd Apatow, starring the always likeable Kumail Nanjiani and written by him and his wife, Emily V Gordon. Based loosely on Nanjiani and Gordon’s own story, the film is about a Pakistani-American man, Kumail, falling in love with a white American woman, Emily, and the reactions of those around them to their relationship. Since its release in the US, The Big Sick has been getting adulatory reviews, and it’s easy to see why: original, engaging and genuinely hilarious, it is Apatow’s best film since 2011’s Bridesmaids. It also features a Pakistani Muslim as the romantic lead, and it cannot be overstated how groundbreaking that is, still, in a mainstream American movie – today especially. However, if you sense a big “but” coming, then bravo, Mystic Meg.
I went to the screening with a good friend, a British Pakistani woman, and her face at the end was a mix of weary amusement and intense irritation. It’s an emotion salad I know well, because it’s the same one I have felt after too many romcoms and TV comedies made by Jewish men – the ones which ostensibly celebrate the power of love to cross boundaries, but end up trashing women from their own culture in the process.
A running theme in The Big Sick is Nanjiani’s resistance to an arranged marriage, which is a perfectly reasonable position. What is less reasonable is the way all the Pakistani women his parents introduce him to are portrayed as pitiable, interchangeable and wholly conventional, even when they have lived in the US longer than Kumail, who was born in Pakistan. The only one who has potential is played by Vella Lovell, who isn’t even Pakistani but of mixed black and white descent. It’s as if the movie can’t imagine Kumail fancying a Pakistani woman, even in a fictional setting.
Nanjiani has said that the relationship between Kumail’s on-screen brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), and his…