Pakistani-American comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani’s recently hosted Saturday Night Live in which he delivered a powerful monologue, tackling Islamophobia and racism he faced over the years.
His film The Big Sick was a big hit this summer. The movie was inspired by the true story of his real-life wife’s Emily V.
Nanjiani grew up in Pakistan, was raised as a Muslim, and came to the US at age 18 to attend college. This is his first time hosting the NBC sketch comedy series.
In his monologue, Nanjiani explained how he is the “second person in my family to leave Pakistan.”
John Cena and Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani to star in a buddy cop comedy
“I came to American, fell in love with a white woman and made a movie about it,” he said in his monologue, before detailing the racist reviews he received.
Nanjiani said some of the reviewers disliked the film’s “race-mixing” — in a film about an interracial relationship. “First of all, nobody good ever uses the phrase ‘race-mixing,” he remarked. “Even if someone was like, ‘I’m pro-race-mixing,’ I’d be like, ‘Why are you talking like that?'”
His monologue also detailed his negative Twitter mentions about The Big Sick that dealt with his race. “A lot of people were like, ‘Go back to India,'” he told the audience. “I’ve never been to India. Are you just hoping I’ll have an awesome vacation soon?” Nanjiani told the audience that it’s remarks like that bug him the most. “My problem with most racism is the inaccuracy,” he asserted.
Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanijani to be honoured for ‘The Big Sick’
“Do the research, put in the work. You will see the benefits. For example, if a guy tells me to ‘Go back to India,’ that guy is an idiot. But if someone tells me to ‘Go back to Pakistan, which was part of India until 1947 and is now home to the world’s oldest salt mine, then I’d back my bags.”
“An informed racist,” Nanjiani concluded, “is a better racist.”
He also talked about the rise of Islamophobia. “Islamophobia is on the rise. It’s like Will & Grace,” Nanjiani joked in reference to the sitcom making a return on SNL’s home network. “It was huge awhile ago, we thought it was gone and done forever and now it’s back! Thursday night on NBC. . .they made me say that.”
Nanjiani’s SNL monologue was super insightful about the racism and Islamophobia he has experienced, even after the release of his critically-acclaimed film The Big Sick. Watch his monologue in the video below and see it for yourself.
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Read more: Hollywood , Kumail Nanjiani , SNL
Last week I went to a screening of The Big Sick, the latest romcom from mega-producer Judd Apatow, starring the always likeable Kumail Nanjiani and written by him and his wife, Emily V Gordon. Based loosely on Nanjiani and Gordon’s own story, the film is about a Pakistani-American man, Kumail, falling in love with a white American woman, Emily, and the reactions of those around them to their relationship. Since its release in the US, The Big Sick has been getting adulatory reviews, and it’s easy to see why: original, engaging and genuinely hilarious, it is Apatow’s best film since 2011’s Bridesmaids. It also features a Pakistani Muslim as the romantic lead, and it cannot be overstated how groundbreaking that is, still, in a mainstream American movie – today especially. However, if you sense a big “but” coming, then bravo, Mystic Meg.
I went to the screening with a good friend, a British Pakistani woman, and her face at the end was a mix of weary amusement and intense irritation. It’s an emotion salad I know well, because it’s the same one I have felt after too many romcoms and TV comedies made by Jewish men – the ones which ostensibly celebrate the power of love to cross boundaries, but end up trashing women from their own culture in the process.
A running theme in The Big Sick is Nanjiani’s resistance to an arranged marriage, which is a perfectly reasonable position. What is less reasonable is the way all the Pakistani women his parents introduce him to are portrayed as pitiable, interchangeable and wholly conventional, even when they have lived in the US longer than Kumail, who was born in Pakistan. The only one who has potential is played by Vella Lovell, who isn’t even Pakistani but of mixed black and white descent. It’s as if the movie can’t imagine Kumail fancying a Pakistani woman, even in a fictional setting.
Nanjiani has said that the relationship between Kumail’s on-screen brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), and his Pakistani wife present a positive portrayal of an Asian man in a relationship with an Asian woman, but this is disingenuous. Naveed and his wife are depicted as retrograde and dopey; the best Naveed can say about his wife is that she is his “best friend”, which, compared to the hot sexy time Kumail has with white women, sounds pretty dull. The message is clear: to marry a Pakistani woman would, for Kumail, be a surrender, a backwards step.
Jewish women are used to this schtick, thanks to the many, many love stories in which Jewish men are portrayed as exotically desirable while blond non-Jewish women represent the romantic ideal. Woody Allen and, latterly, Judd Apatow have both worked in this vein for decades, and it has long been implied in movies starring Jewish comedians such as Ben Stiller (Meet The Parents) and Adam Sandler (The Wedding Singer). Jewish women are represented as nasal, nagging or simply non-existent – someone to move on from as quickly as possible. In the early seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s clearly not-Jewish wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) is contrasted favourably with David’s manager Jeff’s wife, Susie (Susie Essman), who clearly is. As the critic Liel Leibovitz wrote in a 2009 essay on this subject, the modern romcom makes it the role of “the non-Jewish woman – a goddess, after all – to extricate her Jewish lover from his suffocating, crass and unhealthy environment and introduce him to her clean, well-lit world”.
American-Indian comedian Hasan Minhaj touches on this trope in his new standup special, Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, in which he self-mockingly recounts his teenage hope that he’d be saved by “my white princess”. After Aziz Ansariwas criticised for omitting Asian women from the first series of Master Of None, he is shown dating two in the second series, and they are – unlike in The Big Sick – modern and desirable (although he still ends up pining for a quirky white woman).
There are movies in which it’s the woman who falls in love with an outsider – Dirty Dancing, My Big Fat Greek Wedding – and notably, they were written by women. But they are vastly outweighed by male-led narratives by male screenwriters.
The real problem lies in that lazy justification for marrying outside of your culture, by denigrating the options within your culture. After all, I ended up with a non-Jewish man, not because I hate Jewish men (I don’t! I’m related to many!), but because I took a shine to that one man. Cross-cultural love stories are great – and funny, and sweet, and cinematic. It’s just a shame that so many film-makers feel the neurotic need to celebrate their love and future by sneering at their culture and past.