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Kumail Nanjiani mines real-life cultural hurdles and avoiding an arranged marriage in ‘The Big Sick’

When he was 18, Kumail Nanjiani emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan, to Iowa to go to college. Four years later his parents came to the U.S., settling in New Jersey.

Nanjiani welcomed the thousand-mile buffer zone, not because he didn’t love his parents but because they expected, per traditional Pakistani culture, that they’d soon be finding a young woman for him to wed in an arranged marriage. His mother wasn’t letting distance deter her either, emailing Nanjiani pictures of prospective matches, some of whom he knew from Karachi.

Nanjiani had no intention of letting his parents dictate his choice of a romantic partner. But he also had no idea how to broach the subject with them.

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“I was really scared of visiting them because I knew they were really into it,” Nanjiani, best-known for his work on the celebrated HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” reveals in an interview in the garage office of the Los Feliz home he shares with his wife, Emily V. Gordon.

Nanjiani mined that cultural conflict in “The Big Sick,” a movie he wrote with Gordon about their real-life rocky romance, a relationship that faced numerous hurdles, including a serious illness and the specter of familial betrayal. The film premiered to great acclaim at Sundance in January, sparking a bidding war that resulted in a $12-million sale to Amazon Studios.

“The Big Sick” (in theaters June 23) upends expectations at every turn, beginning as an engaging romantic-comedy and then becoming a sometimes harrowing (but still funny) and deeply personal drama that takes in cultural assimilation, growing up and medically induced comas. Nanjiani stars, portraying a version of himself, with Zoe Kazan playing the Emily character.

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