NEW YORK (CBS SF/AP) — Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon made tweaks here and there to the autobiographical "The Big Sick," a romantic comedy based on their own extraordinary romance. But the most unbelievable things are 100-percent true.
Their relationship did, as in the film, evolve as Nanjiani's Pakistani-American family was trying to arrange his marriage. Their lives together were irrevocably altered when an illness forced Emily into a medically induced coma. And — most unlikely of all — Nanjiani did grow up idolizing Hugh Grant and styling his hair like him.
"And you still kind of think that's the ideal hair to have as a human being," Gordon, gently chiding her husband and co-writer, said in a recent interview alongside Nanjiani.
"It's gorgeous," Nanjiani retorts, proudly unapologetic. "He was like my ideal of a man." (Here Gordon cackles) "He still is. The first best-man speech in 'Four Weddings,' when I look back, so much of my stand-up was aping the Hugh Grant delivery. I love that movie."
In "The Big Sick" Nanjiani has filtered his undying love of rom-coms (particularly the Hugh Grant-Richard Curtis variety) through his own improbable experience in love. The film, directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow, has already been hailed as one of the year's best. Amazon plunked down $12 million for "The Big Sick" (in theaters Friday) after its lauded Sundance Film Festival premiere in January.
"The Big Sick" is a refreshing anomaly for many reasons. It's a tenderly personal film in the midst of the brutal blockbuster season. It's a major release starring a Pakistani-American actor (Nanjiani, famous to many for his role on "Silicon Valley"). And it's, by far, the most exciting romantic comedy to come along in years — a rare shot-in-the-arm for a moribund genre, one nearly left for dead after too many conventional mediocrities.
"I would love it to have a comeback," Nanjiani said of the rom-com. "They would need to be different from the glut of rom-coms we had in the early 2000s. It would be good to see new, different versions of it."
Lest anyone doubt his rom-com ardor, Nanjiani's conversation is punctuated by titles like "My Best Friend's Wedding," ''Sleepless in Seattle" and, repeatedly, his beloved "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Apatow recently introduced Nanjiani to its writer-director, Curtis, who gave him a few signed frames from "Four Weddings." ''Kumail was as excited as a man could be," said Apatow.
Nanjiani, 39, grew up immersed in American pop culture. He moved to the U.S. at age 18 to go to Iowa's Grinnell College. He returned last month to give a commencement address where he encouraged graduates to "have sex with an immigrant." ("We're going through a really tough time right now," he joked, "and it would just be really great for morale.")
He and Gordon (who's played by Zoe Kazan in the film) met in Chicago, where Nanjiani was a few years into his then-nascent, still nerve-rattled standup career and Gordon was a practicing therapist. As in the film, their first encounter was at one of his performances. "He said, 'Is Pakistan in the house' and I woo-hoo'ed, helpfully," Gordon recalls. When the two officially met two nights later, Nanjiani was drawn to Gordon's confidence and Gordon "liked the way his brain worked on stage" — like an early bit of Nanjiani's about the first deer that ate psychedelic mushrooms.
Apatow heard Nanjiani tell his story of meeting Gordon, and the subsequent coma, while the two were on Pete Holmes' podcast about five years ago.
"It really was a strange, wonderful romantic comedy story. I thought: 'Nobody has a great story like this. This sounds like a movie.' I sent Kumail and Emily off to start writing and we worked really hard at it for years," said Apatow. "Everything I do is hoping to be in the universe of 'Terms of Endearment.' We usually don't come close but I think this is as close as we've ever come."
Think of the modern romantic comedy and you're likely to picture Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts or Kate Hudson. It is, Nanjiani grants, "probably the whitest genre." And that's one reason why "The Big Sick" points the rom-com in a new direction. Many of the funniest and natural scenes in the film are of Nanjiani sitting around the dinner table with his Pakistani family. (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play his parents; Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play Emily's parents.) In one scene, Nanjiani watches YouTube videos on his phone while he's supposed to be praying.
It adds up to a rarely seen snapshot of Muslim life in America, at a time when American openness to immigrants is severely challenged. Nanjiani is glad they made the film "before all the anti-immigration sentiment became so explicit."
"We just wanted to make a movie about family and love," said Nanjiani. "We're very, very lucky because I think we would have had pressure to make a statement with it. The movie is coming out in a very different context than it was made. I like that it humanizes a group of people that are generally seen in a very specific way in American pop culture."
Gordon has her own issues with romantic comedy conventions. She once did a workshop on how their formulas and expectations are ruining our love lives: overselling the bold romantic gesture and falsifying the synchronicity of two people falling in love.
Alternatively fueled and stalled by cultural differences and an ill-timed coma, their relationship contained no such prescribed beats. But by the end, they were in love. Imbued with a new awareness of life's fragility after the health scare, they moved to New York and got married. Nanjiani, with Gordon's help, grew into his own as a performer, and they went on to write "The Big Sick."
"We weren't afraid of failing so much anymore," said Gordon. Nanjiani concurs. "We just kind of went for it."
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