“I felt like, if we don’t tell a story about a Muslim guy falling in love with a white woman and her falling into a coma, nobody’s gonna tell it,” said Kumail Nanjiani, grinning.
Some movies feel like life, and sometimes life feels like a movie — and sometimes, both are true. Such is the case with “The Big Sick,” which stars Nanjiani and was written by him and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, based on the undeniably dramatic story of their own courtship. It’s the kind of tale at which you might raise an eyebrow — except that it happens to be true, right down to the happy ending. The movie, which is emotional and moving also is often very funny.
About 10 years ago in Chicago, the Pakistani-born Nanjiani — then a struggling stand-up comedian — met Gordon, who’d just finished graduate school and was working as a therapist. Sparks flew, but not without worries: Nanjiani’s conservative Muslim family, who had followed him in relocating to the United States, expected him to enter a traditional arranged marriage, so he hid the relationship from them. Suddenly, Gordon became seriously ill, and as she lay in a medically induced coma, Nanjiani had to make a choice between tradition or love.
Fast-forward to May 2017 (spoiler alert: she’s doing well now) and the now-married couple are sitting side-by-side, finishing each other’s sentences, giggling appreciatively at each other’s stories (he seemed amused to hear that she was president of her high school’s Thespian Society), and generally seeming every bit as charming as the movie presents them to be.
Nanjiani’s now a familiar face — he stars as coding whiz Dinesh on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and has appeared in numerous movies. Gordon is now a writer and TV producer. But they never thought of writing a movie together, until Judd Apatow, hearing their story, encouraged Nanjiani to develop it for the screen. (Apatow ultimately became its producer.)
“I was giving (Kumail) notes on the first draft, and we were just kind of like, ‘We should probably write this together,’” Gordon said. Though she was initially reticent — “I’m definitely more private about that kind of stuff” — she quickly came around to the idea of sharing their history. “Not only do I like how it turned out,” she said, “but it goes from being your story to being a story that you’re creating with other people . It slowly became a thing that felt less like mine and more like it kind of belonged to everybody.”
To write the screenplay, the two took a divide-and-conquer approach. “If it was a scene with me and my family, I would do the first draft; if it was from Emily’s perspective, she would do the first draft,” Nanjiani said. “Then we would trade and rewrite.”
For both of them, it was a slightly surreal experience: Nanjiani was revisiting deeply emotional, traumatic days; Gordon, unconscious for a large chunk of the story, had no memories of what occurred.
“Emily doesn’t literally know the rhythm of those days,” said Nanjiani, remembering endless hours spent at the hospital. “This weird community develops in the waiting room. The patients don’t know each other, but the families all know each other.”