Where Are Hollywood's Queer South Asian Stories? The Big Sick's Kumail Nanjiani Speaks Out

Evan Lambert

It’s been a big year for Kumail Nanjiani. In addition to hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time in October, the Pakistani Silicon Valley star hit big over the summer with The Big Sick, which he co-wrote with producer Emily V. Gordon, his wife of ten years. The film, which stars Nanjiani and chronicles the extraordinary first year of his relationship with Gordon, has amassed critical praise and over $50 million worldwide. And while the movie has drawn criticism for its stereotypical portrayal of South Asian women, it has been credited as a step forward for Asian-American men in film. Now, as the movie continues to amass Oscar buzz, Nanjiani is admitting that there’s still work to be done.

"I’ve had a lot of...South Asian people who migrated here on their own, or who are second-generation, who said they hadn’t really seen [on screen] the struggle that can come from being from another culture in America," Nanjiani told PRIDE in a joint phone interview with Gordon. "However, I think we still have a long way to go."

He continued:

"I think we just need more stories from all different perspectives. Now we sort of see it as, 'Oh, now we see these South Asian guys and we get to tell their stories. The problem’s solved!' ...No. First of all, that you can name all of us means that the problem is not solved. We need more stories from South Asian women perspectives, South Asian gay perspectives...because no one story can encompass the experience of a whole group of people."

The Big Sick, which finds Nanjiani’s on-screen counterpart coping with the repercussions of his girlfriend’s adult-onset Still’s Disease, has been knocked for its depictions of South Asian women as meek, marriage-obsessed, and one-dimensional. Similarly, Master of None, another creation by a South Asian man (Aziz Ansari), has been called out for its relative lack of female-driven storylines. In fact, The Mindy Project, created by star Mindy Kaling, may be the only contemporary piece of mainstream pop culture created by a South Asian woman—and it’s ending soon.

Not to mention the complete dearth of South Asian queer people in leading roles on screen—unless you count Karan Soni’s turn as the bisexual Captain Lipinski in the 2015 series Other Space.

Still, The Big Sick is predicted to nab a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the 90th Academy Awards—and deservedly so. A dizzy mix of romance, wit, and satire, the film has enchanted audiences across the country.

"For us, the movie is done and a success in every way—both critically, and people watched it. And it feels like hubris to ask for any more," said Nanjiani.

But when Gordon added,  "It feels like gilding the lily, but hell, who doesn’t love a gilded lily?" Nanjiani chimed in with, "Yeah, I don’t get what’s wrong with gilding a lily. You know what’s better than a lily? A gilded lily! You see lilies all over the place. But a gilded lily? Now, that’s cool."

While Nanjiani is currently focused on the current season of Silicon Valley, Gordon has hinted that the pair might dip their toes into the screenwriting pool once again.

"We love working together. It was good the first time, so why not do it again?"

The Big Sick, which also stars Ray Romano and Holly Hunter—who, by the way, are attracting their own Oscar buzz—premiered on Amazon Prime Video on November 24.

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