What’s Love Got To Do With It? Review: Shekhar Kapur Tweaks The Rules Of The Rom-Com Game

A still from What’s Love Got To Do With It?. (courtesy: YouTube)

Cast: Emma Thompson, Shazad Latif, Lily James, Shabana Azmi, Oliver Chris

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Rating: Three stars (out of 5)

Shekhar Kapur’s first narrative feature since 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age) makes a clean break from the rest of his output as a director. What’s Love Got To Do With It? is a warm, light-hearted and astute cross-cultural drama that delivers on most fronts, especially the one that lead actors Lily James and Shazad Latif constitute.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?, which marks Jemima Khan’s screenwriting debut, is a romantic comedy that borrows tropes from the playbook devised and popularised over several decades by Working Title (the company that produced the two Elizabeth films too) but encompasses important themes that the genre usually steers clear of.

The film isn’t merely another version of a battle of the sexes. It plays out on a wider canvas. It is a lively, likeable, good-humoured exploration of the cultural quirks that separate a pair of neighbouring London families – one British, the other Pakistani – and how these divergences manifest themselves during and after a wedding in Lahore stirs things up in the two homes. This is One Wedding and a Bunch of Timely Awakenings.

What’s Love Got To Do With It? has a 1990s vibe to it. Zoe’s ruminations on love that punctuate the popular fairy tales (Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood) she narrates to a friend’s children are reminiscent of Bridget Jones’s musings. But contemporaneity does not elude the film because the screenplay makes room for questions of topical relevance and tackles them with a light touch.

Cath (Emma Thompson), a long-time divorcee, lives with her daughter Zoe (Lily James), an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has found romantic relationships exceedingly hard to sustain much to the consternation of her mother.

Their next-door neighbours are the happily married Khans – Aisha (Shabana Azmi) and Zahid (Jeff Mirza). Kaz Khan (Shazad Latif), their dapper doctor-son, willingly gives in to their wish that he go in for an arranged marriage – ‘assisted marriage’, as we call it today, he says to his surprised bestie Zoe.

What’s Love Got To Do With It? is in the main a conventional rom-com but it strikes out new directions to probe racial stereotyping, misconceptions about compatibility, distortions inherent in the western gaze and the pitfalls of cultural chauvinism.

The Lahore-born filmmaker, working with a script by somebody who spent a decade in Pakistan by virtue of being married to cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, provides refreshingly uncluttered insights into the South Asian immigrant experience and how it impacts those who have physically drifted away from an ethos but can never cut themselves off fully from their roots.

Zoe, looking for an upbeat subject for her next film after a few of her ‘bleak’ ideas have been nixed by the producers, decides to document the entire process of a modern, UK-born professional opting to wed a complete stranger chosen by consensus. The girl is a Lahore-based law student, Maymouna (Sajal Aly).

The shoot that takes the sceptical but excited London filmmaker to Lahore and back exposes her to a world she had not known before and, in the bargain, changes her own ideas about romance and friendship.

Kaz, by his own admission, is looking for “someone who is British enough for me and Pakistani enough for my family”. Zoe cannot for the life of her figure out what her childhood friend who grew up in the same street as her is really hoping to derive from an uncertain liaison. But that is what piques her interest in the first place and spurs her to record the event.

Zoe believes that fairy tales are only for the gullible. No one lives happily ever after in real life, she says. But her mom, whose own emotional scars show up now and then, is of the opinion that the daughter would be better off with a man in her life.

The Lahore sojourn for a three-day wedding ceremony filled with dance, music and rituals disavows Kaz of his notions of what life is like in Pakistan. If anything, it is he who turns out to be a stick-in-the-mud among the fun-loving group of Maymouna’s friends, a fact that Zoe can see with clarity through the eyes of her camera.

In a strange sort of way, What’s Love Got To Do With It? does not invite the audience to begin to care for what lies in store for Zoe and Kaz as a key occasion in the latter’s life unfolds under the watchful eyes by the elders of the two Pakistani families involved. Instead, the grants the two leads a long rope in their quest for what they believe is right for them. Zoe thinks she knows that Kaz is going wrong but isn’t absolutely sure of where she herself is headed. The imponderables lend their journey delightful, if not always unpredictable, twists.

Yes, this is what I want, Kaz says in response to a question Zoe poses to him on camera. But does he? This is what makes the script especially interesting – the gap between what the characters want and what is actually transpiring. Kapur’s unsentimental, non-judgmental view of matters of the heart, the awareness that the dynamics of love are never constant.

Beyond romantic entanglements, this is a film about roots and familial ties, especially those that hinge on the instinct of mothers to wish the very best for their children. The emotional traction of What’s Love Got to Do With It? from two daughters – one has chosen love over family and been forced out of the fold, the other repeatedly disappoints her mom by failing to make her relationships work.

The easy charm of Lily James and her chemistry with Shazad Latif make What’s Love Got To Do With It? more than just watchable. The wide spectrum of emotions that the two leads articulate while staying within the limitations of the genre lift the film well above the average.

Shabana Azmi and Emma Thompson as the two mothers are never exactly in the thick of the action but neither of the two seasoned actresses, the former a touch more than the latter, lets any opportunity to make her presence felt go abegging.

Kapur, foraying into a new genre, tweaks the rules of the rom-com game just enough for it to translate into a reasonably happy marriage, if not a match made in heaven.

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