A comic's life for reel

Actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani with his future wife, Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the script for romantic comedy The Big Sick.
Actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani with his future wife, Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the script for romantic comedy The Big Sick.PHOTO: REUTERS

Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani plays a tweaked version of himself in a Hollywood comedy based on his real-life courtship

LOS ANGELES • Kumail Nanjiani loves 1990s romantic comedies, the mushier the better.

"I started doing standup because of Hugh Grant's best-man speech in Four Weddings, which is basically a standup routine," he said.

For the aspiring comic, Grant was the gold standard of rom-com stars, although Nanjiani never dreamt of becoming one himself. "It just felt like the people who were making those things were, like, aliens, or gods," he said.

Next month, he tackles the lead role in the romantic comedy The Big Sick, based on his own experiences meeting, dating and making a hash of things with his future wife, former therapist Emily V. Gordon, who wrote the script with him.

Nanjiani, 39, plays a gently tweaked version of himself, a Pakistani-American standup comedian and Uber driver; Emily (Zoe Kazan) is a therapist-to-be who heckles him - in a flirty, endearing way - during one of his sets. The relationship seems doomed from the start, seeing as how his family expects him to marry a nice Pakistani woman, a fact he somehow neglects to mention to his new girlfriend.

When she becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma - again, from real life - things come to an unexpectedly funny head.

Seeing a Pakistani-American comic secure the romantic lead in a Hollywood film would be a rare delight under any circumstances. What makes The Big Sick all the more remarkable is how little fuss is made of it.

In the film, Nanjiani and his family are seen eating and laughing and goofing off, fighting and making up, just like the actor's real family. It is a vision of a Muslim family, he notes, rarely seen in American film.

"You just don't see Muslims being matter-of-fact Muslim," he said. "We're either terrorists or we're fighting terrorists. I remember seeing True Lies and going, why are we always the bad guys?"

When Nanjiani and Gordon began working on the film five years ago, they envisioned a personal yet relatable film inspired by improbable events. Then came the 2016 presidential election. Not only has Nanjiani since made national news after a confrontation with Trump supporters, but audience reactions have also changed.

"When we started it, it was an important part of the movie, this experience of an immigrant in America," said Judd Apatow, a producer of the movie. "What it's turned into is an important representation that there are a billion people out there who are much closer to what we're like than we are led to believe."

The film-makers better understood how the new political climate affected their movie when early audiences got to the scene in which a young white man heckles Nanjiani in the middle of a comedy set.

"Go back to ISIS," the man yells, smirking. Playing Nanjiani's future mother-in-law, Holly Hunter is having none of it; near fisticuffs ensue.

"We had test screenings of the film before the election and that scene played so differently," he said. "It played funny, but now it's almost a cathartic moment, like a howl of righteous rage. People used to laugh; now they laugh and clap."

The film, directed by Michael Showalter and also starring Ray Romano and Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, received rave reviews after its Sundance debut in January. For Nanjiani, it is his first dramatic lead in a feature film and his first romantic lead in, well, anything.

Until now, he has tackled ensemble roles on award-winning shows: Dinesh, the romantically challenged software engineer on Silicon Valley (HBO), and Prismo, an omnipotent wish-granter with a pinkish, 2-D body on Adventure Time (Cartoon Network).

He said: "The thing that helped me, I guess, was that I wasn't physically intimidating, so I never had to play terrorists."

"You would have been adorable," Gordon observed.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2017, with the headline 'A comic's life for reel'. Print Edition | Subscribe