The Big Sick

Showalter, Michael

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Jiang, Joshua
  • Date of entry: Dec-03-2018
  • Last revised: Dec-03-2018


Kumail Nanjiani is a Pakistani-born American living and working in Chicago. In addition to driving for the ride-sharing company Uber, Kumail performs as a stand-up comic at a local club, hoping to be noticed and land a big break. During one of his shows, he meets a graduate student named Emily Gardner, and the two quickly develop an intimate relationship.  

Kumail hides his relationship from his family, because they insist that he only date Pakistani women. Privately, Kumail struggles not only with the cultural expectation of intra-ethnic marriage, but also with other aspects of his heritage, such as devotion to Islamic religious law. He chooses to maintain appearances out of love for his family and fear of disownment. Emily eventually discovers Kumail’s double life and in anger, ends their relationship.  

Kumail and Emily’s estrangement is interrupted when Emily is hospitalized with a mysterious illness. Emily initially resists Kumail’s presence, but her sickness worsens and she is placed in a medically-induced coma. Under these increasingly uncertain circumstances, Kumail partners with Beth and Terry—Emily’s parents—to navigate a confusing medical system and chart the best course of care for Emily. The three of them clash over their differing perspectives on care and their interpersonal relationships. As he waits with bated breath for Emily’s recovery, Kumail is forced to confront his values and decide whether his desire to please his family and his ongoing affection for Emily can coexist harmoniously.


The Big Sick is based on the real-life experiences of Kumail Nanjiani, who plays himself in the film. Nanjiani brings a characteristic levity that serves as an undercurrent to the otherwise weighty themes of the film: issues of cultural differences, medical uncertainty, and the collateral effects of illness.  

One particularly salient theme of The Big Sick is the impact of sickness on those besides the patient. This film presents an interesting case in that Emily, being in a medically-induced coma, is actually freed from the daily toll of dealing with illness. Therefore, the focus of the film shifts to the ways her parents and Kumail handle the stresses of caring for her. We see these challenges come to a head in a pivotal scene where Kumail loses his temper in response to the compounded difficulties of Emily’s sickness, exclusion from Beth and Terry’s decision-making process, and misunderstandings with his own parents. His emotional breakdown reminds viewers that the burden of caregiving tends to bleed into and intermingle with ostensibly unrelated aspects of life. The film interrogates the emotional capacity required of family and friends in the face of another’s illness and asks viewers to recognize that patients do not tread the journey of disease alone but in conjunction with their caregivers.

In a similar vein, The Big Sick highlights the transformative potential of sickness on caregivers. During Emily’s coma, Kumail reckons with his most deeply-held values: Will he continue to disingenuously live by his parents’ prescribed expectations, or will he follow his actual, sincere beliefs? Beth and Terry are also pushed to re-consider the state of their marriage and loyalties. Sickness is the impetus for these characters to consider their humanity, values, and purpose—adding to the theme of collateral impact.  

Ironically, The Big Sick undermines our idea that the patient is always irrevocably altered by illness when Emily confesses:     

“When something like this happens, there’s this sort of expectation that you’re going to have this completely new lease on life and feel totally different about everything and cherish every sunrise and for the most part I just feel like, ‘well, I can’t get up that early,’ you know?”   

By portraying an illness experience wherein the caregivers are disproportionately affected in comparison to the patient, The Big Sick reveals that the lives surrounding a patient are also at great stake when disease touches an individual.




Amazon Studios

Running Time (in minutes)