In the past few years, we have finally seen an uptick in the personal narratives of Brown-American men on the big screen. No longer limited to the sidekick, we finally have Brown men in roles as leading men — Aziz Ansari with Master of None, Hasan Minhaj with Homecoming King, and Riz Ahmed in HBO’s series Night Of. Now comedian Kumail Nanjiani has thrown his hat in the ring with his Judd Apatow-produced real-life romantic comedy The Big Sick.
Personal narratives are all the rage in Brown pop culture, and just like Aziz and Hasan’s work, Kumail’s movie is based on his real-life narrative of growing up in America. A Pakistan-born, Muslim-raised, immigrant to America, Kumail’s character pursues a career in comedy. While on stage at a show, he gets heckled by a White pixie girl type named Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), based on Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani’s wife and Big Sick co-writer. The two develop a romance.
While their affair grows deeper, Kumail’s secret Desi life involves dinners with his parents where his mother (Zenobia Shroff) parades a series of young single Muslim girls for coincidental-meeting-rishtas. The film takes a different turn in the second half when (spoiler alert, which really shouldn’t be a spoiler alert given the name of the movie) Emily gets really sick. Drama ensues between Kumail and Emily’s parents as they navigate hospitals, uncertainty, relationships and cultures.
As a Muslim American woman with an unhealthy obsession for the romantic comedy genre, I went into this movie with high expectations, especially considering that it was being produced by Judd Apatow. There hasn’t been a mainstream Muslim-ish-Desi-American romantic comedy ever, and it’s been a while since one made it to the indie circuit as well.
After the film’s trailer was released, the Muslim American Twitterverse was in an uproar. The trailer had portrayed a series of stereotypical South Asian girls in salwars and fake accents with whom Kumail gets set up. Given that the movie was based on his real-life romance with his (White) wife, Muslim American women wondered why they were thrown under the bus for the telling of this Brown-man-on-White-woman romance. Once again, Muslim Brown women were crafted as undesirable, conventional, and unmarriageable for the Modern Muslim-ish Male. Even so, believing in the power of memoirs, I went into the movie expecting a personal narrative worthy of being told.
It follows the formulaic quirky romantic tropes for which Apatow films are known. The tenderest moments of the film happen in the second half of the movie when Emily is in a coma, and Kumail reluctantly interacts with her parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. The conversations revolve around those awkward interactions that happen in hospital waiting rooms and the beauty of strangers learning about each other.
The acting and scripting is excellent — the character portrayals are complex, and the mother defends Kumail against Islamophobic hecklers in a scene after another scene where the father asks Kumail for his “thoughts” about 9/11. Kumail responds with “we lost 19 of our best ones that day.” The two-dimensional portrayal of every other brown and Muslim character on the big screen, especially given the complexity of the non-Muslim characters, was incredibly disappointing.
As a South Asian American woman who has always supported pop culture created by South Asian Americans, I have seen my fair share of narratives told from Brown perspectives. I’m ready for Brown stories to advance the narrative. But between the stories of this latest wave from The Big Sick, Homecoming, Master of None and Night Of, I’m getting a little tired of screaming with frustration at the screen.
“I’m ready for Brown stories to advance the narrative.”
Specifically, there are four things that really make me scream — 1) the manic pixie white girl, 2) the “I’m not that Muslim” male perspective, 3) erasure of Brown women, and 4) caricatures of South Asian characters.
In The Big Sick, there is a scene where Emily stumbles onto the box of rishta photos sent to Kumail by his mother. Emily proceeds to have a White Girl Flip Out after discovering that Kumail’s parents don’t know she exists. It’s a classic trope in the Brown man/White girl narrative, but Emily’s flip out is exaggerated and over the top.
In Desi-American narratives, there are always secrets held from parents, particularly with relationships. This is the norm. We saw a similar though more sensitively portrayed flip out in Season 1 of Master of None. Enough with the white girl freak outs over how Desi parent-kid norms are different.
Also, why does there always need to be a White leading woman? Are we unable to tell Brown romantic narratives without grounding them in Whiteness? Is having a White love interest the only way we can convince mainstream culture consumers that our narratives are valid?
“Are we unable to tell Brown romantic narratives without grounding them in Whiteness?”
Master of None, Homecoming King, Night Of, and The Big Sick all revolve their lust around Whiteness, and that is a problem if that’s the only kind of narrative that gains mainstream exposure for Brown romantic narratives.
Secondly, though these stories are all being told by embodiments of Muslim maleness, both Aziz and Kumail are self-declared non-Muslims, though both were raised as Muslim. Aziz addresses this in his show in the “Religion” episode, where he orders bacon in front of his family and the conversation revolves around cultural preservation.
In Kumail’s narrative, he pretends to pray in the basement when he’s really playing video games — things come to a head when he gets into a fight with his mother about how he doesn’t know what he believes. In an interview I read, Kumail discussed how he only inserted that scene after encouragement from Apatow. It almost feels like the placing of these “I’m not the Muslim!” narratives in these movies is for the White Gaze. And in some ways, Muslim men can get away with this in a way a Muslim woman storyteller never would be able to.
Though it is refreshing to see Desi-Muslim-ish men finally telling their own story, when will the entertainment industry give exposure to Muslim women who are telling their stories? And there are many. I have written for two anthologies featuring over 25 women doing just that — Love, Inshallah and Good Girls Marry Doctors. Both collections feature many Muslim and Desi women telling their personal narratives — yet the mainstream entertainment industry only seems interested in giving their money to men.
“Though it is refreshing to see Desi-Muslim-ish men finally telling their own story, when will the entertainment industry give exposure to Muslim women?”
Finally, in The Big Sick, all of the single girls with whom Kumail gets set up are completely flat characters and exaggerations. I mean, I get it, Kumail’s not into Brown girls, but he doesn’t need to make their portrayal such stereotypes. And it was pretty clear that there wasn’t a Brown female writer in that writing room to tell them otherwise.
I was excited to see the quirky Vella Lovell (who plays the punk deadpan BFF on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) cast as one of the girls — Khadija — but then they slapped her character together with a bad accent and the shallowest lines. As a single brown Muslim woman in America, it was absolutely insulting to finally see a version of myself on the big screen after years of never being seen in pop culture and then see that version portrayed as shallow and stereotypical. When will stories that reflect my type of narrative finally be seen on the big screen?
I will never stop supporting pop culture created by South Asian, Brown and/or Muslim people. I think it’s important to signal to the entertainment industry where I want to spend my money. I will continue to buy art by Hate Copy, listen to Horsepowar and Swet Shop Boys, and give out shine to deserving projects through the Good Muslim Awards on my #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast.
But I want to challenge Brown creators that we need to move the narrative forward. It’s not just about two dimensional stereotypical portrayals that we saw in the ‘90s. It’s 2017, it’s time to recenter the Brown narrative authentically and completely.
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Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. Taz was honored as White House Champion of Change for AAPI Art and Storytelling and as UCLA Luskin Alumni of the Year. An avid essayist, she has written for Sepia Mutiny, Truthout, The Nation, Left Turn Magazine, and more. She is published in the anthologies Modern Loss (2018), Six Words Fresh Off the Boat (2017), Good Girls Marry Doctors (2016), Love, Inshallah (2012) and poetry collection Coiled Serpent (2016). Taz curates Desi music at Mishthi Music, and she makes disruptive art annually with #MuslimVDay Cards. Find her at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.