Kumail Nanjiani Is the Romantic Comedian We’ve Been Waiting For

7 minute read
Kumail Nanjiani photographed in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, April 17, 2017.Brinson+Banks—The New York Times/Redux

Kumail Nanjiani is worried about Optimus Prime. On the first night of June, in the bunker-like Playstation Theater beneath the thrum of Times Square, the 39-year-old comedian is onstage talking about the robotic leader of the Transformers. The fifth installment hits theaters June 21, two days before Nanjiani’s romantic comedy The Big Sick opens. “I thought there couldn’t possibly be anything new they could do,” he says of the explosion-laden Michael Bay movies. But he was wrong: “Optimus Prime has a sword. We’re so f-cked.”

The joke gets big laughs, but the simmering anxiety underneath is genuine. On the phone a few weeks earlier, when asked how he’s feeling since the movie he co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, sold to Amazon for $12 million at Sundance in January, he explains, “A lot of people have significantly invested money and themselves into this.” The movie was acquired for considerably more than the 2006 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, which went on to gross $100 million worldwide. “It would be great if that investment paid off,” he adds.

Nanjiani—who grew up in an Urdu-speaking Shi‘ite Muslim family in Karachi—is stepping into leading-man territory, where his presence is still a novelty for slow-to-change Hollywood. The movie depicts a Muslim family with a rare intimacy, the relevance of which wasn’t lost on the Sundance viewers who saw it the day of Donald Trump’s Inauguration and a week before the President issued his first travel ban.

But The Big Sick, directed by Michael Showalter, isn’t about any of that. Based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s real-life courtship, it stars Nanjiani more or less as himself, Zoe Kazan as a version of Gordon, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as her skeptical parents and Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher as his. It’s your typical boy-meets-girl romance. Except here, the boy charms the girl by writing her name in Urdu on a cocktail napkin; then he keeps the girl, who is white, a secret from his family; then he signs a release to put her into a medically induced coma when a mysterious illness befalls her, soon after she discovers he’s been begrudgingly meeting prospects for an arranged marriage. The Big Sick is not about the happily ever after. It’s about all the messiness that comes before.

Nanjiani grew up a minority in Pakistan, where Shi‘ites are far outnumbered by Sunnis. His mother instructed him to keep their religion a secret for fear of violence. But it wasn’t religion that made him feel like an outsider. “I didn’t fit in because I didn’t like the same stuff that a lot of people liked,” he says. “I was obsessed with movies and video games, and that’s all I wanted to do.”

He learned English by watching films like Ghostbusters and Gremlins. When he arrived in the U.S. for college, dropping down at Grinnell in the middle of Iowa—hardly the skyscrapers he’d come to expect from American TV shows—he became obsessed with comedy. During breaks, he’d travel to his uncle’s home in Florida, VCR in tow, and tape hours of HBO standup. Finally, his friends persuaded him to do an open-mike night. It went well enough that, after graduation, he moved to Chicago, land of Second City and Belushis, and worked in tech support while moonlighting as a comic.

In his early standup, Nanjiani resisted relying on his experience as an immigrant, but he later relented. It was too much a part of him to categorically exclude. He built an entire show around it in 2007, called Unpronounceable, and returns to the topic frequently. In his 2013 Comedy Central special Beta Male, he agonizes over his conflict between his love for Call of Duty and his frustration with the Karachi-set game’s street signs, inaccurately scrawled in Arabic instead of Urdu. At the Playstation Theater in June, he mocked Twitter trolls telling him to “go back to India:” “Do they hope I have an awesome vacation?”

By the time his stand-up career had taken off, Nanjiani had also broken out on shows like Portlandia and Inside Amy Schumer. And, most of all, HBO’s Silicon Valley, on which he plays the unlucky-in-love software engineer Dinesh Chugtai. He’d also fallen in love with Gordon, who worked as a family therapist before becoming a writer and producer. A few years after the acute trauma of their rocky first year had subsided, they discussed the idea of turning the story into a film. Gordon wasn’t quite ready to relive it, but in 2012, when producer Judd Apatow heard the tale—the cross-cultural family, the dramatic medical episode—he agreed that it would make a pretty good movie.

Being anointed a Sundance sensation brought with it scrutiny previously unknown to Nanjiani. After The Big Sick‘s rapturous reception at the film festival, the life he had been living in America for 20 years was suddenly deemed relevant. Until recently, he says, “I never felt pressure to represent anything other than myself.” Now, it feels unavoidable.

“Some of my people are upset, like, ‘We want more representation, but why this guy? He’s not funny or good-looking or a good actor or smart,’” he says. “And I agree! It shouldn’t be me!” But right now, along with a handful of high-profile performers of South Asian descent like Aziz Ansari, Riz Ahmed and Dev Patel, it is him, and he’s adjusting. “I’ll do the best I can. But I don’t think anybody should have the pressure of representing a whole group of demonized people.”

Nanjiani and Gordon acknowledge the importance of the film’s nuanced representation of a Muslim family, but when they were writing, they treated it mostly as a “happy side effect.” Still, there were a few points they handled with care. She was adamant that Nanjiani’s family speak Urdu onscreen. “My in-laws are always speaking Urdu, and I’ve never seen that in a movie or a TV show that wasn’t them planning something nefarious,” she says.

“It was very important to us that my family be a real, fun, Muslim family that’s loving,” says Nanjiani. But he didn’t draw them that way to make a statement—he did it to raise the stakes. Explains Gordon: “We wanted it to be a big deal if he were to lose them.”

A longtime rom-com aficionado, Nanjiani believes the form can be used to explore situations not often seen on film. “The best ones are always about something more than just the couple getting together. Sleepless in Seattle is about grieving. When Harry Met Sally is about people getting to know each other over decades.” When done well, romantic comedy can be as provocative as drama. “People don’t want escapist, mindless entertainment right now,” he says. “People want stuff that really speaks to something.”

Still, Nanjiani doesn’t conceal his love for popcorn blockbusters of the Transformers variety. And if he has his way, one day he’ll be in them, not just competing against them at the box office. But as the wheels of change sputter and creak in Hollywood, he believes his prospects in the realm of spandex suits and mechanical shapeshifters aren’t exactly manifold. “I can’t be Captain America,” he says. Instead, he has his eye on a new comic book series, Ms. Marvel, about a Pakistani-American teen growing up in New Jersey. In his estimation, Marvel’s not going to turn around tomorrow and spend $100 million on a tentpole starring a brown woman. Says Nanjiani: “It’s going to take a lot more smaller movies with brown leads.”

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com