Does true love exist in arranged marriages? That’s the question Shekhar Kapur and screenwriter Jemima Khan try to bring up in ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’. It was the director’s first movie in 16 years since ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ in 2007 and marked the first time he made a rom-com — uncharted territory for the Indian filmmaker, whose primary works were mainly biographical dramas seen in ‘Bandit Queen’, ‘Elizabeth’ and the aforementioned 2007 sequel. But this is not the first time Kapur explored something different for a change since he even used to direct a Hindi superhero film called ‘Mr. India’ back in 1987.
His latest movie, which originally premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, revolved around Zoe (Lily James) and Kaz (Shazad Latif), who have known each other since childhood and even live next to each other. When Kaz’s parents set up an arranged marriage for their son to a bride named Maymouna (Sajal Aly), Zoe, who happens to be a documentary filmmaker, plans to document his journey with her Canon DSLR. Kaz may have been a modern Pakistani who secretly smokes and drinks, but he still adheres to his parents’ wish to adopt their culture’s traditional arranged marriage. He seems to be happy meeting his bride, a shy and soft-spoken introvert, and they first get acquainted via Skype.
But Zoe remains uncomfortable with the fact that her childhood friend is engaged to someone he barely knows. As for Zoe herself, she has been unlucky in love after experiencing one disastrous short-lived date after another. Her divorced mum Cath (Emma Thompson), doesn’t want to see her end up alone, going as far as setting up a date with her dog’s mild-mannered vet, played by Oliver Chris.
It’s hard not to subconsciously relate the title with Tina Turner’s Grammy-winning 1984 hit song of the same name and how I wish the movie goes meta by inserting it as part of the needle drops. Well, that didn’t happen. ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’ may have been Kapur’s first venture into the rom-com genre, but he managed to pull off most of it. He understands that a good rom-com needs equally good on-screen chemistry, and ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’ thankfully has it with the spot-on casting of Lily James and Shazad Latif.
James brings sufficient emotional depth to her vulnerable role of Zoe beneath her sweet-natured exterior. Beyond Latif’s strikingly handsome screen presence, he does a good job shouldering most of the movie’s dramatic heft as we see his character gradually face the challenge between being dutiful for fulfilling the tradition of an arranged marriage and dealing with Zoe’s predicament.
While James and Latif excel in their respective roles, let’s not forget about screen veteran Shabana Azmi, who delivers solid support as Kaz’s stern but caring mum, Aisha. However, Emma Thompson’s high-spirited turn as Zoe’s mum feels like she’s trying too hard to steal the show but is glaringly over the top.
‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’ also benefits from Jemima Khan’s witty and thoughtful screenplay. This is actually her screenwriting debut after spending the last few years as a producer and executive producer for movies, TV series, and documentaries. Khan, who used to marry former cricket player-turned-Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan before they divorced in 2004, reportedly draws most of the inspiration from her own personal experiences.
This, in turn, helps to bring a sense of credibility to her screenplay of how traditional Pakistani arranged marriage generally works while striking a fine balance between lighthearted romantic-comedy elements and an acute cross-cultural drama. The latter is where Kapur’s sensible direction brings out the best in Khan’s screenplay, reflecting the different mindsets and cultural understandings related to Kaz’s rigid obligation as a Pakistani to respect the arranged marriage and Zoe’s independent-thinking nature that one should be given the freedom of choice when comes to loving someone. Kapur even manages to find a middle ground not to depict the traditional practice of arranged marriage appearing one-sided in a negative light.
The movie is also a triumph in its technical values, notably the way Kapur captured the colorful and fairytale-like vibe of the Lahore-set wedding night, covering everything from Caroline McCall’s lush costume design to the elaborate marriage ritual and exuberant dance numbers. Then, there’s Remi Adefarasin’s rich cinematography and Simon Elliott’s opulent production design that made the movie all the more visually appealing to look at.
Although Kapur eventually succumbed to a more conventional rom-com ending that wraps up too neatly for its own good, ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’ is a charming and insightful movie worth checking out. And not to mention a great comeback for Shekhar Kapur, proving his versatility in handling different genres outside his usual comfort zone.