Director: Shekhar Kapur
Writer: Jemima Goldsmith
Cast: Lily James, Emma Thompson, Shazad Latif
With age, I've gotten cynical about the romantic comedy genre. (I’ve also gotten cynical in general, but that’s a story for another cloudy and misanthropic day). You can't blame me. As a Nineties’ kid, this is the genre that invited me into the movies. Billy Crystal, Richard Gere, Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Marisa Tomei – these names were my access to not just future cinephilia but also a childhood full of hope and happily ever afters. Even today, I randomly tear up in the middle of an afternoon when I think of them. Those films taught me to remember the best parts of ourselves. Then came the cross-cultural romcoms – the cutesy movies about brown-white (or white-brown) romances in the West – which started the decay in the mid-2000s. The formulas set in. The exoticised lens fed the pre-streaming zeitgeist. Soon, Hollywood stars moved to heavyweight pastures, and now all we’re left with are the algorithmic ruins of the Christmas Movie (here’s looking at you, Netflix).
So believe me when I say that I had no plans to watch What’s Love Got To Do With It?. The aforementioned reasons aside, the sketchy Tina Turner stan-title made me doubly wary. The one thing that piqued my curiosity, then, was the director’s name: Shekhar Kapur. Once famous for making era-defining Hindi movies (Masoom, Mr. India, Bandit Queen), Kapur is now famous for not making movies. It’s been a while. This is his first feature since the Oscar-nominated Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), back when he was still Indian cinema’s most popular Western export. But projects have been announced and shelved, and Boomer Twitter has been discovered, in the last 15 years. Needless to mention, I went in with all sorts of questions: What acclaimed director makes his comeback with a rom-com? Is this another case of a veteran filmmaker trying to speak outdated millennial language in a doomed pursuit to adapt? Has Kapur ever made a ‘feel-good’ film?
A few scenes into What’s Love Got To Do With It (try saying the title without singing it – just try), however, it becomes clear that Kapur is the secondary name in this production. He executes and translates, but the primary voice is that of English writer Jemima Goldsmith. This is very much her film. It’s her screenplay, sprinkled with the magic dust of her own life. Given she was once married to prominent Pakistani ex-cricketer and politician Imran Khan, the two cultures at the heart of the story – featuring a rooted Pakistani man and an unfulfilled British woman – don’t feel unnatural. The funny parts are well observed. Even the done-to-death tropes feel breezy. The inimitable Emma Thompson (as Zoe’s enthusiastic mother who loves her neighbours and is practically an honorary Muslim) lights up every scene she’s in. Thompson’s comic timing is almost moving in how she always says the right thing in the most amusing way possible. You know they're going to end up together, but the journey is shaped by the writer’s unique understanding of generational conflict. In fact, it’s the connections Goldsmith draws between these seemingly disparate cultures that distinguish the film from others in this space.
For starters, Zoe (an affable Lily James), one of the two 30-something protagonists, is a serious London-based documentary filmmaker who can’t find funding and therefore ventures into ‘snackable’ territory. She decides to make a lightweight film about arranged (or “assisted”) marriage, by following her childhood friend and neighbour, Kazim Khan (a very watchable Shazad Latif), as he embarks on a bride-finding spree with his parents. In other words, she pitches a title (an ingenious one: “Love Contractually”) that directly feeds into the matchmaking reality-show frenzy. Zoe’s willingness to adapt – rather than conform – to modern mediums of storytelling vaguely mirrors Goldsmith’s own career: As a former journalist, philanthropist, social activist and award-winning series/documentary producer, it's no coincidence that her first film as a screenwriter is a romantic comedy. (This change in tone applies to Kapur’s comeback as well). But perhaps the most interesting creative choice concerns the ghost of the British monarchy, which playfully haunts this film.
Exploring the language of arranged marriage and generational discord through the lens of the Royal Family Story might seem far-fetched, but the writing does well to join the dots and contextualise the multicultural tragedy of "upholding the legacy". The disease is not restricted to one people or one region. The message is strong and political, but it’s also oddly personal: The premise surreptitiously reimagines the destiny that the late Princess Diana – who was Jemima Goldsmith’s friend – actually deserved. (Goldsmith recently revoked her credit as a consultant on the divisive Season 5 of The Crown, under the pretext that it misrepresents the Diana narrative). It’s a touching tribute if you can detect it, mostly because the writer presents Zoe as an amalgamation of Diana and herself.
Zoe is reckless but also unlucky in love after a string of failed relationships with questionable men. She even reads out adult versions of children's fairy tales to her best friend's kids, in which she's the central character and metaphor for a seeker. Her documentary career reflects Diana's coping mechanism: Her philanthropy and deep investment in the victims of society. Kazim is a doctor at a local hospital, and his compromise on love in favour of his family's wishes is a nod to Diana's doomed relationship with Pakistani surgeon , widely considered her soulmate, and a man who chose his lineage over life in the spotlight with her. Zoe and Kazim's story is an echo of what could have been, if everyone was a little more flexible and sensible in this situation. At one point, Kazim even replicates the infamous Prince Charles line – "whatever love is" – while being interviewed by Zoe before his wedding; his fiancée's face does a Diana-esque double take, too, cementing the film's insights about the culpability of tradition. This subtext reframes the run-of-the-mill rom-com as a poignant ode to a lost friend.
It’s not seamless, of course, because Zoe and Kazim don’t look like they’re secretly attracted to each other without knowing it for years. The realisation is awkward. Her filming of Kazim and his family (led by Shabana Azmi as his mother) is superficial at best, particularly when Zoe chronicles his actual wedding to a seemingly conservative girl in Lahore. The clichés run amok. But that’s the name of the genre game. You lose some to win some.
I didn't mind the few missteps (also Zoe's hipster houseboat pad), perhaps because I was constantly aware of how the movie is a conversation with the past. It is both subtle and disarming at once. If anything, my decision to watch it at a foreign film festival might have made me a little more vulnerable – and open – to anything that tastes like home. That's not to discredit the film. On the contrary, it felt warm to hear the applause and giggles and lumps in the throats of a local Norwegian audience. They didn't miss a beat, picking up the tiniest of cross-cultural puns. Maybe it's because the truth across the world, across eras, has stayed the same: Cultural evolution is the ultimate feel-good fairytale.