Kumail Nanjiani explains the real-life story behind his Sundance hit The Big Sick
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It’s late spring 2016, and cameras are rolling in a nightclub in Brooklyn. Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) steps on stage to perform stand-up. But instead of telling jokes, he melts down as he confides to a stunned audience that it’s hard to do comedy when your girlfriend is in a coma. Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris) yells “Cut!” Several feet away, Emily V. Gordon — who was the actual comatose girlfriend who inspired the story, and who co-wrote the script with Nanjiani, now her husband of 10 years — wipes tears from her eyes while sitting next to Zoe Kazan, who portrays her in the film. “That day was definitely the hardest for me,” Nanjiani, 39, says. “There were certain scenes we wrote that I cried when we wrote them, I cried when we rewrote them, I cried when I read them, I cried when we rehearsed them, and I cried when I acted them.” He laughs. “It sounds so serious on paper: A Pakistani guy whose parents want him to have an arranged marriage has his white girlfriend go into a coma. But it is a comedy!”
Festival audiences cried tears of laughter at The Big Sick, which got snatched up by Amazon at the Sundance Film Festival for a reported $12 million and won the Audience Award at SXSW. “It’s a unique kind of love story,” says Judd Apatow, who produced and helped develop the project over five years. “It is tricky because there’s elements about culture clashes and how to handle situations when people get sick, and it needed to be really funny in an organic, truthful way.”
Much of the humor arises when Nanjiani must navigate his vigil at Emily’s bedside alongside her wary parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) and also keep his relationship secret from his traditional Pakistani Muslim parents (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher). But in the end, it’s Gordon and Nanjiani’s love story that is the heart of the film. “We were not consciously trying to make a political statement, but we live in a time now where a brown man falling in love with a white girl is inherently a political statement,” says Nanjiani, whose intent was completely different. “One of my favorite comedies is Shaun of the Dead. Hey, that’s not so dissimilar from our movie — they’re both about a guy dealing with a crazy situation he’s not equipped for to win back the girl.”
The Big Sick will be released on June 23.