A personal take on Jemima Khan’s scriptwriting debut feature film ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ directed by Lahore-born award-winning Indian director Shekhar Kapur
By Yasmin Whittaker-Khan
The recently released What’s Love Got To Do With It?, a universal story told through the eyes of a British-Pakistani family, feels as lifelike as possible to the modern-day privileged Pakistani family and their liberal diversity embracing, dog-loving English neighbours.
With a tight debut script by Jemima Goldsmith, ex-wife of Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, and direction by BAFTA award-winning Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, the film transports viewers from England to Lahore at its finest. Interestingly, Kapur was born in Lahore, 1945.
The story revolves around a British-Pakistani family, the Khans, who are seeking a wife for their handsome, talented son Kazim played by Shazad Latif. The whole family plus their English best friends and neighbours travel to Lahore to attend the wedding.
The neighbours include a divorced English woman Cath (played by Emma Thompson) who totally embraces Pakistani culture – barring some racial biases seeping out unintentionally – and her beautiful single daughter, Zoe (Lily James).
An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Zoe has been desperately searching for love via dating apps, but she holds unachievable expectations. Seeing the opportunity to pitch her next (possible) award-winning documentary, she sells out on her best friend by filming his “assisted” wedding.
Once the Khans and their voyeuristic neighbours land in Lahore, the city’s idyllic setting steals the show with its historical architecture, mausoleums, shops and food markets. As a viewer, I yearned to be a guest at this wedding.
Kazim gets married to the stunning Zoya (Sajal Aly) with whom he has already developed a relationship over chaperoned Zoom calls. But something isn’t right. Is this possibly a forced marriage? Or is she secretly in love with someone else? Or is she gay?
The film has a strong cast, playing well to their characters, like Lily James as the unassuming ‘girl next door’ and a captivatingly comedic Emma Thompson. This is the first film in which I’ve appreciated Thompson’s performance and felt she brought the film to life.
Shabana Azmi rarely brings joyful expressions to her performances yet casting her in this rom-com was clever as she plays her dominant matriarch character strikingly. Jeff Mirza as the unassuming father seems to stick to the script without adding his usual uncle-ji quips, bringing fragility and charm to the screen.
The uplifting soundtrack features a qawwali by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and contemporary instruments plus the vibrancy of the ever-faithful sitar and tabla by the renowned, award-winning Nitin Sawhney.
As a British-Pakistani writer, I feel the pressure to not only tell an engaging story but also fulfil an unspoken duty to myself to address socio-political issues. Having adopted Pakistan through a journey of self-awareness and a need to retrace my biological heritage, I feel a burden of responsibility to use my privilege to highlight positive social changes and foster debate on subjects often swept under the carpet within most families regardless of race. My writing is usually dark comedy, taking up often controversial issues that I feel need to be addressed.
This film shows that contrary to my earlier held perceptions, social issues can be beautifully and subtly addressed, letting audiences make their own judgement.
Many British-Asian movies also take on the duty to put things right in our communities by telling the stories that need to be heard. But why should they? Because it ticks all the stereotypical boxes for producers to sell South Asian scripts (as the character Zoe experiences in the film while pitching documentary ideas to hungry producers)? Or because we’re all creative keyboard warriors, or there’s a level of cathartic anger subconsciously brewing?
In the 10 years that Jemima lived in Pakistan while married to Imran Khan, she clearly gained an understanding of the elite society she moved in. Released in the UK on February 24 and in Pakistan on March 3, the film is a refreshing masterclass on how to adhere to the classic romantic-comedy structure, delivering a delightfully fair representation of multi-heritage families in cosmopolitan London and Lahore.
There are many rom-coms set against ‘assisted’ (read ’arranged’) marriages versus ‘love marriages’. Not many balance satisfyingly laugh-out-loud depictions with the romance and sense of belonging captured in Kapur’s thoughtful direction and Khan’s intuitive script.
Overall, a feel-good film evoking emotions of joy and faith in the enduring power of love. There is love to be discovered, whether through an app, social interactions, work, gym — or your parents’ address book.
Yasmin Whittaker-Khan is a youth worker, writer, presenter, film producer and social activist based in London. She is the director of the human-rights organisation Insaan Culture Club.
This is a Sapan News syndicated piece.
Note on Southasia as one word: Following the lead of Himal Southasian, Sapan News Network uses ‘Southasia’ as one word, “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”. Writing Sapan like this rather than all caps makes it a word that means ‘dream’
- The Wire, ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ Is a Feel-Good Rom-Com With a Sturdy Message, 11 March 2023
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