If You Can’t Break Old Rules
It Can Make You Sick

The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon, and Kumail Nanjiani’s touching, sad, scary, and deeply heart-warming romantic comedy tells us a lot about those old rules you live by. They’re not so easy to break. They turn into “should-s,” carry terrible guilt; they make you scared. And, along with all that, they confuse you. Particularly when it comes to trying to figure out what you can have and even what you want. Worse, what if choosing what you want means losing someone you love? What if there is more than one loss on the table? Which loss is the one that wins?

The Expected

Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) is a Chicago-based Pakistani stand-up comedian, a profession not exactly in his mother’s lexicon of expectations (he should be a doctor or at least a lawyer). But his comedic aspirations are tolerated as long as she arranges his marriage. That is the one Pakistani tradition that can’t be broken, even in 21st Century American life. Deep down he knows he must not break this rule. The consequences are too great. He won’t have a family any longer.

So far, he’s begrudgingly going along with his mother’s barely disguised matchmaking shenanigans, in those not-so-welcome Sunday night dinner visitors: eligible young Pakistani women. The doorbell rings: “Oh, Kumail, it’s [fill in name of the most recent one], she just dropped by! She happened to be in the neighborhood.” For some reason (guilt? the pressure of family tradition? a have-to that he can’t break?), he keeps all the photos of “potential wives” in a cigar box on his dresser, tossed on the pile as soon as he gets back home.

The Unexpected

The unexpected comes along, though. That unexpected is a woman. But not a Pakistani one. She’s Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) – a funny adorable flirtatious “heckler” (at his comedy show), someone he might actually love. It’s the last thing both were expecting. And actually what both were trying to avoid. But, the attraction is strong and they can’t stop it; become “overwhelmed” by each other and are falling in love.

What does Kumail do? He lies. Lies to Emily and he lies to his family. For a while, he lives a double life: the Sunday night dinner charade; the photos tossed into his cigar box; and Emily, who is a match; the best he’s ever found. What other choice does he have, though? Honesty is too risky. He doesn’t want to lose her – and he doesn’t want to lose his family either.

Kumail’s stuck in these lies until Emily opens the cigar box and the truth comes out. It isn’t pretty. She’s mad and she’s hurt and she no longer trusts him. He admits his parents know nothing about her. And because of the arranged marriage “rule,” he can’t (and won’t) tell her there’s the chance of a world where they end up together. She goes away. He’s sad, terribly sad. It’s hard to go on without her. But, he tries. His culture and Pakistani/Muslim tradition take precedence. He has to do what he’s expected to do and live the life he’s expected to live.

Family Rules Or Love?

Family is a powerful thing. We need them. Need their approval. We don’t want them to abandon us. But, what if their traditions and expectations don’t fit the life we’re trying to live? This is Kumail’s dilemma. It’s a dilemma many kids face when parents have seemingly unyielding expectations. Sometimes these expectations are subtler than the cultural ones imposed on Kumail. Yet, even subtle ones can bring conflict and restrictions (both internal and external) about living your own life.

Whose life is it anyway? That isn’t always clear.

Kumail’s parents brought the family to America for a better life. Yet the question is: can he and his brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) be Americans with the personal freedoms this has come to represent? Naveed puts it in a nutshell when Kumail tells him he’s dating a white girl: “You have to see what it’s like; you’re in America. But, eventually, you have to marry a Pakistani girl. You have to end it now – or Mom will fucking ghost you.”

So. Is this his life? It doesn’t look that way. It’s them or her. If he has to choose his family over Emily, his family wins. Kumail doesn’t think he can live without them. Not yet. He doesn’t know how sick the conflict is making him, having to shut down what he really wants. Until, that is, Emily gets deathly sick.

The Big Sick

Late one night, Kumail gets a frantic phone call on his cell phone. It’s Emily’s friend. Emily is in the ER with a “very bad flu.” Her friend has a test the next morning and begs him to go to the ER and drive Emily home. The sound of “emergency” and “sick” is a stronger wake-up call than being woken out of sleep. He’s in bed with another girl – (there’s no shortage of girls who flirt with him at the comedy club. He’s trying to live without Emily.) But, there’s no second thought; he jumps out of bed and rushes to the hospital.

Emily’s doctor tells Kumail there’s a mysterious and rapidly spreading infection in her lungs. To treat it, they must put her into a medically induced coma to save her life. That has to happen now. She’s only semi-conscious and a family member must give consent. Her parents are in another state: “You are her husband, aren’t you? Aren’t you?”

Now he’s beginning to see what “important” really is.

When Kumail calls Emily’s parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), it’s no easy thing. Beth knows how much he’s hurt her daughter, a mom who’s just been betrayed by Emily’s dad. Terry is struggling with guilt. Now things get interesting.

Facing Realities

Getting to know Terry and Beth, Kumail comes face to face with what is going on inside him: his guilt; his fears; his need to choose who he wants to wake up with every morning of his life.

Terry tells Kumail about his affair, his regrets, and how stupid he was: “What did I fucking do? Kumail, you’ll know the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with when you cheat on her.” Strange advice. Did Kumail cheat on Emily? Maybe he did – choosing his family over her.

Beth tells Kumail that her parents didn’t like Terry at first either. He was different than her North Carolinian roots; didn’t like football; her family was military, Terry protested against the Vietnam War. How did it end up, Kumail asks: “A lot of fucked up dinners, but they got over it.”

Getting The Help You Need

They help him and he helps them. In some funny getting-to-know-each other moments, Terry faces his cheating on Beth. Beth takes out her anger at Terry by standing up for Kumail at the comedy club when a heckler calls him “ISIS.” Even though Kumail uses it as material (“I am a terrorist. I just do comedy on the side to keep a low profile”), Beth will have none of it. She has a lot to be angry about, won’t back down. Beth and Terry work it out. Their marriage is saved.

And, Kumail’s love saves Emily. Because he’s always loved her in spite of tradition, he paid very close attention to every detail. He remembered that Emily’s ankle didn’t heal and told the doctors, who do a test they hadn’t thought to do before. Kumail helps them make the unexpected diagnosis of Adult Onset Stills Disease, a rare and very invasive form of arthritis that can kill if not treated. Emily is on the right medication and awake.

Kumail can finally save himself.

‘Should-s’ That Make You Sick

Living by someone else’s rules, those ‘should-s” that get inside your mind, is an invasive sickness too – if you stifle your anger about being stopped from having what you want. We finally see that anger at the burger stand. The inflexible cashier (READ: mother) won’t give him what he wants, four slices of cheese and one patty, not the other way around. The song playing in the background says it all: “I’ve known men who’ve known love and thrown it away.”

Kumail won’t do that any longer. When his mom says: “Only one thing we’ve asked of you … be a good Muslim and marry a Pakistani girl,” he stands up to her. As expected, she threatens: “You’re not my son,” but this time he won’t back down: “I can’t marry someone you find for me because I’m in love. Her name is Emily and she’s very sick right now. “

This is Kumail’s release from the “coma” induced by his mom’s old-world proscriptions and control. Waking up and taking a stand is the cure for Kumail.

Earning Trust By Standing Up To Should-s

Winning Emily’s trust isn’t so easy. Kumail shows her his “Bag of Devotion”: all the visitor passes from his visits to the hospital; tickets from his comedy act when her parents came to watch him perform; a bottle with the ashes of the burned up photos of all the Pakistani women in his cigar box.

It takes time; misunderstandings; fear; his move to NYC; and Emily watching his stand-up performances from afar on YouTube, especially the one about how he tells his family about her. The film ends by circling back to the beginning (with some hard-won wisdom in between).

Emily is in NYC at his comedy show, in the audience, “heckling” him. The Big Sick has been Emily’s invasive illness. But, “sick” is also pushy family rules that can’t be broken. Breaking them – even though it isn’t easy – gives Emily and Kumail’s love another chance. Turning to her at the comedy club, he pretends not to know her, asking where she’s from and what she’s doing in New York: “I came to see someone.” “Have you seen him?” This time, they both say: “Yes.”

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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