Adrienne Rich proposes that “an honourable human relationship – that is one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” – is a process…of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation [and] in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.” This process is the heavy work of love. It’s messy, often painful and it requires things of us that don’t always come naturally.
This type of love is also not often the topic of your customary, workaday romantic comedy. The RomCom and I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship. Despite myself, I am often seduced by their frothy reductionist view of the world. I hear them whisper, are you unhappy with your life? With yourself? Do you feel undervalued or incomplete? The implicit promise in many of these stories (like any good fairytale) is that in our romantic happily ever afters, we become complete as part of a pair, two halves joined as a whole.
It is a seductive, beguiling notion and as I immerse myself in these stories it is tempting to believe that if only I could achieve a relationship with one other person, that person, I could be satisfied. In the back of my head though, I have another voice, the one that recognizes that our own personhood, the complexities of the many relationships that enrich and challenge us and our identity as children of God strenuously resist such a simple understanding of human fulfilment. (This is not to say that I wouldn’t like to add romance to my roster of other relationships…Lord? Are you listening?)
I tell you all this so that you can understand the internal conflict that accompanied me as I walked into the theatre to watch The Big Sick last week. I knew that I would be writing about the film and I was all set to write a post about how romantic comedies often subvert or misunderstand what love really is. However, what I saw instead was a film that truthfully reflected our own brokenness, our desires and all the types of love we pursue and by which we are pursued. Despite the delightful laughter that permeates it, the film reminded me that, as Carl Sandburg writes, “Heavy, heavy is love to carry/and light as one rose petal.”
The story begins by introducing Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself, a stand-up comic and Uber driver in Chicago. He meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) by way of a flirtatious heckle and things progress from there. Kumail and Emily treat romance and sex too lightly; both are actually pretty serious business. They jump headfirst into love without understanding what is fundamentally important to the other.
To have a depth of relationship with others, whether it is your family, your partner or even God, requires us to offer the truth about ourselves.
They see each other merely as individuals, as islands with no attendant continents or archipelagos. It should come as no surprise then, that early on the relationship comes to a screaming halt. Emily’s disclosure of a past divorce pales in comparison to the fact that a reluctant Kumail, at his Mother’s hopeful insistence, is weekly introduced to nice Pakistani women, all candidates for what his parents desire will be an arranged marriage.
In a plot device that would seem hackneyed if this movie wasn’t based on the true life story of Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, Kamail is forced to confront his fragmented self as Emily contracts a serious infection and has to be placed in a medically induced coma. The second half of the film takes place in the absence of one half of the romantic duo. Happily, however, the audience has a number of other relationships in which to invest themselves.
To me what sets this movie apart is that it takes seriously the fact that we do not move through our lives as solitary figures. We are created by and are a part of bodies that interlock like so many living Venn diagrams. Emily’s life is bound up with her parents, and their marriage (played beautifully by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) is nuanced and interesting. What do betrayal and forgiveness look like in a relationship that is decades old? How do love and anger, irritation and comfort, all exist simultaneously? This portrait of a couple that weathered many storms, but has not yet jumped ship shows another possibility of what love might look like.
However, It is the relationship between Kumail and his parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) that allow us to see the biggest conflict of the film, Kumail’s struggle to be who is really is. While his parents are defined by the three strands of family, religion and culture, Kumail struggles to understand what family looks like when religion and culture weaken. How does love weather a change in identity? Kumail has dealt with the shift by living two lives, but quickly discovers that compartmentalising your life in that way looks a lot like lying to those you love. If those you love don’t know the whole reality of you, only the components you choose to share, you may be simply lying by omission about who you are. As Kumail untangles some of this himself and risks honesty with his family, there are consequences that are not easy, but the relationships that result are ones between whole people and not partial personas.
Kumail’s realization that he is not being authentic in his relationships is perhaps the most interesting and poignant component of this delightful film. He begins to understand that heavy truth, that that love requires vulnerability. Confession. Forgiveness. To have a depth of relationship with others, whether it is your family, your partner or even God (perhaps most importantly God), requires us to offer the truth about ourselves. How can we know we are loved, if we keep the reality of our struggles, beliefs and failures all in our closed fists, only occasionally lifting a finger to allow a glimpse, but never the whole picture. Connecting with others is a risk, but to be fully loved and loved in truth, we must be willing to give ourselves to be seen and known.