Film Review: Go See “The Big Sick

 

“I was thrilled to see a mainstream, wonderful film about a Muslim who’s not a terrorist!” said Maram, a delightful Muslim in my interfaith women’s group. If it’s still playing near you, “Run, Forrest, Run” to the movies.

Without ruining the plot, the lead actor plays himself, Kumail Nanjiani, a comedian whose family emigrated from Pakistan. The crux of the dilemma he confronts: his mother insists on an arranged marriage for him, as they were always done back home in Pakistan. He, meanwhile, falls in love with an American girl (who becomes desperately ill, hence the title.) When his mother finally finds out, a question arises that has probably been raised by every immigrant group: Irish, Chinese, German, or African.

Mom: “Do you know how much we sacrificed to bring you here? I haven’t seen my mother in 15 years, or my sister’s children. Your father had to completely redo his graduate work.”

Son: “I appreciate those sacrifices, mom. But if you wanted so much for us to grow up in the US, why are you trying to recreate the culture of Pakistan?”

When our interfaith group of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women discussed the film, the conversation was lively. We learned especially from a lovely Pakistani-American, wearing a hijab, who explained why she had an arranged marriage there. Her father, a doctor, and her mother, a professor, gave her a sheltered upbringing. She was transported to and from school, never dated, and hadn’t a clue how to choose a spouse. Because in that culture, it meant marrying into a whole family, she naturally trusted her parents to make the choice from their circle of friends. Apparently, it has worked well, although bride and groom didn’t meet until their wedding day. (North Americans may be surprised, that the statistics on arranged marriages are actually quite good.) Key to her story, though, was the closing line: “But I’d never do that for MY children!” How much can change in one generation…

Not to spoil the ending, but it’s happy. The audience in Oakland roared with laughter when girlfriend Emily’s tiny mom who had initially been doubtful about Kumail, tackles a large, clueless heckler at one of Kumail’s comic performances. Awkwardly thrown together while they keep vigil at the ICU, Muslim boyfriend and American parents eventually become quite close.

That supports the Pew research: when asked which religion they hate most, Americans respond, “Islam.” That changes, however, when they actually know a Muslim. Hasn’t that also been true for relations with people of color and gays/lesbians? Heartening to think that we’re living through a time of remarkable shifts in attitude, when we slowly come to realize that all humans have the same DNA as precious children of God.

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