CultureCinema On The Big Sick: Desi Families, Dysfunctionality And Defection

On The Big Sick: Desi Families, Dysfunctionality And Defection

Desi families are not the only ones who deny their children the autonomy of choosing a partner, it is a global phenomenon.

I’d found the trailers for The Big Sick intriguing. The recent wave of (visible) work by Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj also helped maintain this curiosity. I’m not Indian American (I’m an Indian, who lives in the USA), so the dichotomies and struggles in this work is familiar, but not home.

The plot of The Big Sick revolves around Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American stand up comedian, and his real life romance with Emily Gordon, who is not Pakistani or Muslim. In a nutshell Kumail is torn between his love for Emily and his loyalty towards his family, his family seems to have no such inhibitions and openly disapprove of the notion of love, instead scheduling regular ‘appointments’ for Kumail to meet a girl to marry.

The word arranged marriage comes up fairly often even though I had not heard the word appointment in the context of bringing possible brides-to-be home for visiting. When Emily finds out about his calendar collection (kidding, it was a cigar box) of pictures of Pakistani-American women, their romance comes to an end. Lots of things happen after this and eventually they end up together, woot woot.

This trope of desi families in Western countries denying their children the autonomy of choosing a partner is not new, it has been milked from the days of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Pardes. My sample size has been biased towards movies about desi families in the US (and I use the term desi to include Pakistan and Bangladesh, forgive me this liberty).

In this piece I am talking about arranged marriage more in a way that parents short list potential partners for their children to meet and interact with and choose from. The choice is not pre-determined but the universe of possible partners is based on caste, religion, socio-economic strata and more. I think this trope works for a couple of different reasons:

  1. It provides the non-Indian/desi population of the said country (in the case of The Big Sick, the rest of the Americans) a legitimized voyeuristic peek into family setups and values, which they can’t quite decide they are impressed or appalled by. There is this fascination with the idea that a family unit that decides who you marry and when you pray can somehow ensure contentment that is missing in other cultures, the belief that the secret ingredient in preventing broken relationships and marriages lies in these traditions.
  2. It works because it is real. This happens to Indian American adults (and I mean adults, not just early twenties but folks in their early thirties and more) in desi families across America. It does not happen to all adults, it does not happen in the same degree to everyone. But it happens. All the lines in the movie where the parents tell Kumail all that they have done for him, that they have sacrificed and more, all of these are milder versions of sentences parents continue to say each day.
  3. It works because it is an acceptable problem to have. Hear me on this one. It gives the immigrant community something to hold close to their heart, it allows them accept the lack of understanding by the rest of the country and still uphold it even as they become second or third generations in the country. They likely see it as something that sets them apart and is core and integral to their success in a foreign country. It ensures that no matter how Americanized the kids become with their hobbies and lifestyle choices, they are anchored by marital choices. There is both the reality of choice (choosing the one person from the many offered) and the illusion of choice (that the many being offered are random).

I am bored of this trope and I also find it problematic as well as mildly infuriating. I think there is normalization of dysfunctional parental behavior and it is spared from questioning because it is happening in the immigrant community, the community which is considered a model minority, sending so many kids to Ivy Leagues and to coveted and highly-paying professions.

Even if they do a few wrongs, how wrong can it be? If you pit this against the issues the average America sees with the rest of the immigrant communities (and I say this with wholehearted sarcasm – the African American community, which is not an immigrant community, is seen as lazy and violent, the Latino community as fit only for domestic and labor work), you can see why it is easier for people to leave this alone.

A style of parenting that relies solely on guilt and manipulation is not normal, even though it may be common. Parenting is not something that gets a lot of scrutiny, especially in desi cultures where parents are likened to gods (a comparison not without issues). Most of these movies end with the parents reluctantly accepting the love of their child’s life – 90% of times this is a cishet companion and now keeping with the times, you may have the occasionally personal who identifies as lesbian or gay.

In The Big Sick, this does not really happen. Even as Kumail’s parents come to bid him goodbye as he leaves for New York, his mother keeps sitting in the cab. His father hands him mutton biryani, made with love by his mother (!) but says he is forbidden to hug him. Earlier in the movie Kumail is told he is no longer part of the family and this is not uncommon. It is usually at this point in these movies that I want to pause them and throw something at the screen to shatter it. This toxic behavior is not parenting. I imagine parental love to be unconditional, but I know I am wrong. What I find much harder to accept is the bartering nature of this love – you marry as per our requirements, we will keep you in the family and invite you to events you probably dread and ask you to pray, moments in which you think about your Instagram feed.

Also read: Toxic Families: Beyond The “Ideal” Family

I expect this trope to show up repeatedly, in comedy and TV shows, in big screen and indie movies. I am not asking for it to be banished. What I do hope for is a far more critical questioning, a questioning that will create a tension causing discomfort for most desi families. Questioning is seen as an act of wilful defiance, a few steps away from becoming the family pariah. Just like we don’t talk about uncle A’s sleazy hugs or aunty B’s constant shouting, we don’t talk about other things that make us uncomfortable. Desi families are hardly the only ones, avoidance of difficult conversations and differences is the global hallmark of families across the world.

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