Recently—although it’s not like it hasn’t happened before—I was crying over some romantic false start while talking on the phone with my mom. It was one of those weird situations that’s not really dating, but also not not- dating, and I wanted to tell her what happened and then have her tell me why it ended. I could hear the helplessness in her voice as she tried to comfort me. It wasn’t only that it pained her to hear me in pain; it was that she truly had no idea what I was dealing with.
My parents—like the parents of Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Ravi Patel, and Kumail Nanjiani—had an arranged marriage, meaning an outside party coordinated their engagement (specifically, their parents). Not only did my parents get an arranged marriage, most of the couples in my family did, too. My cousins in arranged marriages would often get married simply because they decided it was the right time, while my cousins who didn’t opt for arranged marriages just found the right person. The endgame might have been the same (marriage, commitment, love), but the how-to was wildly different. Because of these differences, talking to my parents about my romantic life can be confusing, frustrating, and, sometimes, surprisingly illuminating.
It makes sense that the aforementioned South Asian American artists are interested in creating and acting in romantic comedies: Mindy Kaling’s TV show The Mindy Project ; Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None ; Ravi Patel’s documentary co-written with his sister, Meet the Patels ; and now Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick (co-starring Zoe Kazan as Emily, who is based on Nanjiani’s wife and screenplay co-writer Emily V. Gordon) . Kaling, Ansari, and Nanjiani all have strong comedy careers, and the rom-com genre must be a compelling niche to reach for as comedians play a role in reinventing it. Nor is American pop culture’s fascination with arranged marriage surprising: Arranged marriage seems to typify both the worst and best aspects of commitment; it’s one easy cultural touchstone to bring up to South Asian people in (sometimes misguided) attempts to “connect” or “educate”; it taps into yearning for things that matter to every culture in the world—commitment and love.
But beyond that all these creators and the stories they’ve created emphasize the main characters’ relationships with their families. Ravi Patel’s documentary in particular gets to the heart of this by showing him and his sister trying to have these challenging personal conversations with their parents. This cultural family divide was also the tipping point in The Big Sick : While Emily and Kumail’s relationship follows familiar rom-com beats, it becomes something new altogether when they have to face their parents—specifically, in how Kumail deals with his parents trying to arrange his marriage (he tries to ignore it), and how Emily’s parents react to Kumail (they try to ignore him ).
The works of Kaling, Ansari, and Patel include discussions with parents about dating, love, and marriage, even if the characters do sometimes avoid or dance around the subjects. But with The Big Sick , based on the real-life love story of Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani , the main point of suspense—Emily’s character being put in a medically induced coma—brings these culture- and value-based debates on commitment and romance to bear into a frightening and dramatic scenario.
The Big Sick looks at arranged marriages, yes, but ultimately it is the story of two very different people and how they talk to their families. At one point, Emily’s mom tells Kumail to leave, since at that point he and Emily have broken up. Emily’s mother knows this because, she snaps, “[Emily] tells us everything. ”
In contrast, Kumail initially keeps his parents in the dark about not just Emily, but how he feels about romance, commitment, and arranged marriage altogether. The one time he comes close to talking to them is well before Emily gets sick. He simply quips to his mom—who is constantly bringing over women for Kumail to meet—“Why are you so bad at this?” She gives him a withering glare in return, but can you blame either of them? They’re both just doing their best. Her, setting up meetings; him, going to them. They have no other script.
Scripts like this fascinate me; they represent a way of imposing structure, boundaries, in what many of us perceive as the most disordered, illogical thing in the world: love. When I think of these scripts and how we use them, I also think of Mandy Len Catron, who wrote the viral Modern Love column, “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This,” in which she describes following a series of lab-made questions to connect with an acquaintance and eventually fall in love with him. But Catron’s book, How To Fall In Love With Anyone , out June 27th, tells a more complicated story about how scripts can fail us. For years, she writes, she’d looked at her parents’ marriage as the ultimate story of long-lasting romance, which made their divorce all the harder. She also goes into what romance and commitment has meant over recent history and how it’s been depicted in our romantic stories. Finally—and most compelling to me—she recalls a long-term relationship of her own that didn’t work, and goes into the nitty-gritty details into why. In hindsight, Catron sees how she felt herself constantly checking a script and marking certain romantic checkpoints, causing her to stubbornly hew to a certain kind of romantic story based more on fate rather than on choice, even when it clearly isn’t working for her.
In The Big Sick , you can see how both Emily and Kumail are following certain romantic scripts in their heads without even thinking about it. Emily is becoming more comfortable and more vulnerable with Kumail because she hopes for a future with him; Kumail is opening up as well, but is doing so because he doesn’t think they have a future. What brings them together is also what drives them apart.
While watching The Big Sick , I kept thinking about Emily V. Gordon’s writing, particularly the piece that introduced me to her work in the first place. “Lessons I’ve Learned From Being a Therapist” is a simple list of emotional truths, but revelatory if you consider it as a base for helping people build scripts. By acknowledging that people’s emotions follow certain patterns, that we can manage our emotions through continual self-awareness and overall have a degree of control over our lives, Emily supplies suggestions for stronger communication and better understanding of our relationships with friends and family.
Arranged marriage can be seen as merely another kind of script, one for pursuing commitment and love and talking about it with your parents—very different from the scripts American culture usually provides. In discussions with my friends, we admit we all find it hard to talk to our parents about dating, regardless of what cultural mores we grew up with. In American culture today, dating is sometimes seen as another way to figure out what you want in a long-term romantic commitment (or whether you want a long-term romantic commitment at all). But when it comes to arranged marriage—in which parental parties are also involved, and looking to commit on a timetable—you simply can’t go in unless you’re already sure about what you want.
Not only that, an arranged marriage scenario is based on either your parents already knowing what you want, or you being able to tell them. It can be so hard to talk to our parents—people who know us so well—about what we want from romantic relationships before we’re even sure ourselves. Similarly, the way we can be rejected or reject others can be hard to explain to the people who are meant to love us unconditionally and are keen to advise us in such matters. This creates a special kind of confusion for the person who grows up with two cultures and two sets of ideas regarding not only what they want, but also how they are supposed to talk about that with their family.
It’s with an upheaval of the typical rom-com script that Kumail and Emily’s romantic story earns it a degree of authentic suspense. When Emily gets put in a medically induced coma, Kumail has to call her parents in. And when her parents come, he finds himself . . . sticking around, awkwardly enduring her parents’ confusion, anxiety, even affection for him. It’s enough to make him reevaluate how he deals with his own parents.
In fact, both in real life and in the story, Emily’s illness is the impetus that gets Kumail to take not just his affection for her seriously, but love and commitment as well—enough to open up to his family about it. In an interview about their real-life story, Kumail has said , “We probably wouldn’t have gotten married because I wouldn’t have had the guts to tell my parents . . . they wanted me to get arranged married and [Emily’s coma] sort of forced me to confront all of that stuff all at once.” Instead of characters removing external and internal obstacles to get together, in The Big Sick , unforeseen trauma pushes these characters to make the tough decisions about whether they can truly be there for each other.
This decision—Kumail sticking around for Emily, sticking with her parents while she’s in a coma—may not seem like the sweeping romantic gesture found in rom-coms of old. But that’s because it’s not just a gesture, it’s the real deal, the reason we look for these commitments in the first place: to have someone we can rely on as much as—or even more than—our family. Kumail’s actions are romantic in that they show him to be just as reliable, important, and present as Emily’s parents, reminding us that within a committed relationship, romance and family can become one and the same.
My relationship with my parents is more like the movie Emily’s relationship with hers than Kumail’s with his. After that phone call, my mother, at a loss on how to advise me when she had only dated my father after they got engaged, began doing something both charming and kind of embarrassing: She asked her coworkers for advice to pass along to me. So, instead of her perspective, I got the scattered perspectives of all the people in her office who had dated before getting engaged.
I’m still not sure if it was necessarily instructive, but it did soothe me to share my dating woes with my mother. It was such a relief to talk to someone who knew and cared for me so much; someone who had not only crossed that finish line and found lasting love and commitment, but was also willing to listen and support what I was doing—even if my methods differed from what she would have done herself.