Bafta-winning Akhtar plays cultural conscience in new US romantic comedy, alongside Bollywood’s Anupam Kher…
IF SERVING off-soya milk to a future Hollywood director is your way of bagging a part in a movie, then Adeel Akhtar can tell you all about it (wink-wink).
“I was at drama school,” recounted Bafta-winner Akhtar, who is one of the stars of the US film romcom ‘The Big Sick’ which releases tomorrow. “And I was working in a coffee shop in Brooklyn (New York) and I remember serving the director (Michael Showalter) almond soya milk and it had gone off.”
He explained to www.asianculturevulture.com that the coffee shop wasn’t doing too well and he was under express orders from the management to use whatever they had.
“It was about 10 years ago, and the same coffee shop Heath Ledger used,” aded Akhtar who has certainly come a distance since then and some.
A familiar face on our TV screens in Channel 4’s ‘Utopia’ and the BBC’s ‘The Night Manager’, he became the first non-white to win a Best Actor Bafta earlier this year for his role in the searing BBC drama, ‘Murdered by my father’.
Yet the process for securing his part in ‘The Big Sick’ was fairly standard with a US-based production. He auditioned for it to screen and it was dispatched to the producers of ‘The Big Sick’ – which includes Hollywood comedy supremo Judd Apatow.
Written by stand-up and actor Kumail Nanjiani (probably best known here for Sky’s ‘Silicon Valley’) and his wife, the writer and one-time therapist Emily V Gordon, ‘The Big Sick’ is a grown-up romantic comedy about crossing cultural boundaries and is based on the real-life romance (and eventual marriage) between Nanjiani and Gordon.
In the film, Nanjiani plays himself As ‘Kumail’, while the ‘Emily’ part is reprised by Zoe Kazan.
Akhtar plays Kumail’s on-screen brother, ‘Naveed’.
He is something of a contrast to Kumail’s own dissolute character – Naveed is married, settled and outwardly observant of his Muslim faith – Kumail is none of those things and the relationship between the two brothers is more honest and frank than the one between Kumail and his parents.
Kumail’s father in ‘The Big Sick’ is Bollywood star Anupam Kher and his mother is the marvellous Zenobia Shroff.
They both tow a particular cultural line that is mostly conservative and centred around a traditional middle-class Indian/Pakistani outlook (– ‘you marry from your own community – with a little help from us’).
However, much as you might disagree with this representation – this is also the truth for some – and some Americans would share a similar conservative outlook about marriage and relationships. Emily’s parents are played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.
What Nanjiani and Gordon show through their romantic drama is that Muslim families are not that different to white American ones.
Akhtar said he warmed to the script because it had a truthfulness and honesty about it.
“It’s about the truth of a character and saying it like it is,” he explained with a bit of a detour about Hanif Kureishi and his still seminal novel, ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ (1990) and the honesty of ‘negotiating’ two cultures.
“It (‘The Big Sick’) isn’t like ‘Sleepless in Seattle’,” he added.
No, that’s what we mean when we say grown-up, it isn’t sickly sweet (excuse the pun) and Kumail’s and Emily’s film romance is messy, bumpy and awkward…and funny.
In the US, it’s been doing very well, despite not being a big budget – by Hollywood standards – movie and on relatively fewer screens than its competing fare.
It’s been credited with having something of a breakthrough effect – showing American Muslims as really not much different to other Americans – and that the hysteria over Muslims in Trump’s America is just that – and unwarranted on any level.
“Culture and ethnicity, it’s two sides of the same coin,” Akhtar elaborated when we talk about the wider impact a film like ‘The Big Sick’ can have.
“It’s about storytelling and blending it in, it might be about small stuff but you can take out a lot,” Akhtar deposed.
In the film, Kumail promises his mother he will study for law and give up on his stand-up ambitions and quit the fill-in Uber driving job. He also goes through the charade of meeting prospective American Pakistani women he might marry.
Perhaps the Asian women in this segment come off less well – one of Kumail’s active suitors is given a stronger and more appealing voice, but critics would say it doesn’t amount to an awful lot in the end and while Naveed’s wife (‘Fatima’/Shenaz Treasury) is not cast as desparate, she’s portrayed as a little stodgy in comparison to the ‘hot’ Emily.
Kumail’s playing a small venue Chicago comedy club when he first takes on Emily’s wild heckles and their relationship begins and one of the film’s subplots is about resisting parental pressure to pursue your own desires and ambitions.
It prompted a discussion about how Akhtar broached the idea of an acting profession to his own parents.
He said they didn’t oppose it but knew perfectly well that it was not stable and many were unemployed, if not unemployable (as well).
“My father still tried to help,” Akhtar recalled. “He said he knew someone in Pakistani TV and said they might be able to help.”
Akhtar went to Pakistan to audition for a TV news anchor role.
Pakistani TV’s loss is Britain’s gain.
By way of upcoming work, he told acv he is extremely excited, having just completed work on a film called ‘The Therapist’ which his brother-in-law has directed.
“We shot just down the road,” he said speaking on the phone from his London home (in contrast to shooting in the US for ‘The Big Sick’). “It’s quite funny.”
You can bet it is, if one of Britain’s top actors thinks so.
‘The Big Sick’ opens in the UK tomorrow (July 28)
Main pic: Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) in ‘The Big Sick’. Photo by Nicole Rivelli.
*All pictures courtesy of Studio Canal (UK)