The Big Sick debate

I’ve been following the debate around The Big Sick’s treatment of Pakistani/desi women, with articles coming from desi women (this one comes from Tanzila Ahmed who looks at brown romance in pop culture) and desi men (Imran Sidiquee asks why brown men are so infatuated with white women on screen).

My own thoughts (before having seen the film) are here in a previous blog post – I write that desi women should make more films with their own love stories, like Mississippi Masala or Love Inshallah. A lot of times this is hard for desi women who have been raised to be more reticent about love and sex. But these stories can be innocent, too, like the recent NYT op-ed about the Muslim girl who wanted to go to prom with a white guy.

I thought it would be interesting to ask the perspective of my desi male cousins who have grown up or immigrated to America what they thought of The Big Sick and the debate surrounding the fetishization of white women. My cousin Amir Qalbani who lives in St. Louis, had this to say:

“To be honest I have kind of mixed feelings about this debate. I haven’t seen Nanjiani’s movie so I can’t comment too much on it but it does seem to me through the previews I watched that desi women are once again the unfortunate recipients of two dimensional idiosyncrasies and bereft of any sincere character development.

“Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is slightly more nuanced and has an episode where he gets advice from one of his desi women friends as they discuss culture and tradition. His parents, religion, and traditional expectations are also brought up but in a much more sympathetic and light hearted fare.

“As I haven’t seen The Big Sick, I can’t comment on how severely Pakistani culture is portrayed but I am reminded about how much of this movie is based on Nanjiani’s real life, and that is something I can relate to because I too married (and not too long after divorced) a white woman when I was very young. I have many cousins who also faced a lot of blowback from their families for marrying white women.

“Ultimately I can’t fault Nanjiani for making a movie about his life and interracial marriage that unfortunately still remains a contentious issue in our culture especially amongst 1st and 2nd generation desis growing up in the west. As far as the topic of secularization and fetishizing white women as the ultimate prize for assimilation is concerned, I think that has much more to do with the myth of the model minority that many immigrants are pressured in to accepting when they first move to the west.

“Unfortunately many desis immigrants like to stick to themselves and are more concerned with getting their kids the proper schools, college, job, marriage and assimilating well into a white capitalist hegemony where they can wield power and influence than they are at stopping to realize that children growing up in a foreign country will have their own crisis of identity, sex, assimilation, etc. They rarely involve themselves in provocative social justice issues that seek to dismantle white supremacy and level the playing field for everyone.

“I’ll end this on my hope and wish that maybe in the future we’ll see movies about desi women and their struggles in growing up in the States and their struggles with balancing their lives between culture, traditions, personal expectations, and assimilation.”

In the end, Nanjiani is presenting his own personal story, and it is the story of many other men of his age and generation, and even those older than him. The most offensive scenes in the movie involve a potential bride who’s portrayed as an FOB buffoon and a scene where Nanjiani burns all the photographs of the women who have been presented to him as candidates for marriage. These have obviously been exaggerated for comic/dramatic effect. Could the movie have done without these touches? Yes. But when we want to marry outside of our culture we tend to portray the alternative — Pakistani men, Pakistani women — as simply unacceptable or unpalatable to us.

While it certainly shouldn’t be seen as pathological to fall in love with or marry a white woman, it points to many factors: that when brown boys/girls grow up in white countries, there are many more white people to fall in love with than desis, unless you live in a big city or attend a university where you can meet more people “like you”. And for many immigrants, relationships with white people are convenient, easier than accessing desi/Muslim women in the same social class. There are fewer restrictions on meeting up/socializing/sexual relationships. It is also announces in the most obvious way that you want to put down roots and stay in your new country.

So there you have it. Ladies, make more films.

1 thought on “The Big Sick debate”

  1. I saw the movie, enjoyed it a lot.. but Mr Nanjiani can’t really make the claim about the movies depiction of arranged marriage that he made to you. There could have been a lot more nuance on what he depicted for the Pakistani end of things.


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