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Film Review: Jemima Khan’s ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It? ’

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 6th July, 2023

A British-Pakistani romantic-comedy with a spectacular cast and a stellar producer – what’s not to love?

(NB this review contains spoilers)

Jemima Khan’s film What’s Love Got To Do With It?  delves into the world of arranged marriage, or “assisted marriage” as emphasised by the lead character Kaz (Shazad Latif), a doctor who opts for an “old school” approach in finding his other half – looking for the “click” factor that so many singletons hope to discover upon meeting their soulmate –  with the help of his parents. Meanwhile, Zoe (Lily James), the co-lead,  is an award-winning documentary filmmaker juggling an industry plagued by stereotypical narratives whilst also navigating the problematic world of online dating, as well as a string of unsuccessful relationships. She convinces Kaz, her childhood friend and neighbour, to make a documentary about his journey to find ‘the one’, which he reluctantly agrees to over a game of table tennis in Central London. 

The juxtaposition between the two main protagonists gives the film a promising start. We begin with the wedding of Kaz’s brother (Mim Shaikh) and you get a glimpse of the vibrancy of British-Pakistani culture, so much so that Zoe’s mother, Cath (Emma Thompson) quite gleefully describes it as “exotic”, prompting her daughter to interrogate perceptions of foreignness. The main  wedding scene is stunning with exquisite attire and enchanting music (thanks to Nitin Sawhney and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan), capturing the essence of  Pakistani weddings, while the depiction of Lahore allows viewers to reminisce about visits to Anarkali bazaar. However, this framing ultimately perpetuates the idea of exoticising a culture for the white gaze, which goes against the film’s initial attempt to challenge this notion.

Despite a rocky start, the film has all the makings of a good rom-com: there is key chemistry between the protagonists and the tongue-in-cheek humour has the potential to defy the usual conventions. In recent interviews, Jemima Khan shared that one of the aims of the film is to subvert the narrative that portrays Pakistanis as fanatics and terrorists. This is reinforced by The Missing and Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies report, supported by the Pillars Fund, which evidenced that “39% of Muslim primary and secondary characters were shown to be perpetrators of violence”. In light of this, the film is a welcome departure from negative depictions that have become embedded in media portrayals to date. 

So, what is it about What’s Love Got To Do With It? that feels as though someone ordered a chai tea instead of a karak chai?

Let’s start with Zoe’s venture to document her friend’s search for a partner.  Initially, she grapples with colleagues who almost salivate at the thought of a brown version of Love Actually, sarcastically renamed by Zoe as “Love Contractually”. Yes, this is quite funny and challenges the notion of delivering tokenistic diversity which many people working in the arts sector contend with much too often. Zoe is also portrayed as someone who is adamant about retelling fairy-tales with a feminist twist to teach her nieces that women don’t need male saviours. However, as the movie progresses, her character falls prey to a typical white saviour complex which becomes more evident as we approach the end of the film where she portrays the potential pitfalls of arranged marriage through her lens, quite literally. 

We also have the Pakistani grandmother whose judgemental opinions are matched by Cath, who expresses prejudiced views about her beloved neighbours. Many people will likely relate to the experience of having relatives that make the most outrageous comments at the most inconvenient of times, and one can see the intention here is to show that bigotry can exist in any culture whilst also acknowledging that these individuals can be loving in  other meaningful ways. However, despite providing comedic value, both characters come across as quite cringe and caricaturish.

In terms of highlighting the differences between their lived experiences, there is a moment when Kaz explains “you grow to love the person you’re with” when Zoe questions his decision to marry someone he hardly knows. As the families make plans to travel to Pakistan, Kaz wants to leave extra early to account for the delays he will inevitably face being ‘randomly selected’ at the airport. We then have moment after moment where Kaz imparts more cultural knowledge in a desperate attempt to humanise his existence.  By this point there is a feeling of absolute exhaustion, and perhaps Kaz feels it too because he quite powerfully describes a “whole continent” existing between numbers 47 and 49. There is a hope that Kaz’s character will blossom into something more multi-dimensional but he unfortunately becomes a prop in Zoe’s journey of self-discovery.

The film also falls short in the lack of dialogue given to Kaz’s bride-to-be, Maymouna (Sajal Ali). In 2019, Sajal Ali’s role in the popular Pakistani TV series Alif in 2019 was a much-needed digression from the usual spiel around evil mother-in-laws and notorious melodramatic dialogue. It was, therefore, exciting to see a Pakistani actor being given a platform to represent other Pakistani girls in a nuanced and purposeful way, as some of Sajal Ali’s previous roles have. In fact, Jemima Khan assured audiences that she felt Sajal Ali would be an “equal match” for Lily James. With that in mind, when we first meet Maymouna over a Skype call with Kaz, wearing a dusky-pink coloured dupatta loosely over her head, she looks beautiful but timid. We learn that she is studying law and though she seems agreeable enough to being introduced to Kaz, we sense some underlying apprehension. 

In the first half of the film, a lot of her appearances involve her smiling and saying “thank you” each time she receives a compliment. We eventually hear Maymouna string a few sentences together at the wedding when she introduces her friends all of whom have typical Pakistani nicknames like “Pinky” and “Toffee” (very relatable to those that have a family member called ‘Aunty Baby’). She then excitedly announces “now the party starts” as she jarringly transforms into a more ‘modern’ version of herself, and the audience is transported to a wedding of an elitist class of Pakistanis doing drugs, alcohol – no pork of course – and not forgetting the tokenistic (Pakistani) gay friend thrown in for good measure.

Here, the film succeeds in representing an experience of Pakistani diasporic communities when they go ‘back home’ and native Pakistanis assume they will be more ‘liberal’ (or perhaps it’s British-Pakistanis who are making the assumptions?) but the film also fails in that it bows to well-known tropes because it paints Maymouna as a repressed Pakistani girl who is itching to let her (blonde-streaked) hair down.

As brilliant as it is to see Sajal Ali cast in the film where she delivers a fabulous performance despite the limited screen time, the film does not fully utilise her incredible talent and falls into the age-old trap of giving the brown girl less to say and thus limiting her impact on the story. Considering this, it would be interesting to see if the film would pass The Riz Test which measures the way identifiable Muslim characters are portrayed on screen.

The film does offer some positive portrayals of arranged marriages, but these are mostly relegated to the older generation, as the only young couple are Kaz’s brother and his wife who we see at the beginning of the film. It turns out they met at Rumi’s Cave (very believable) and the thing they have most in common is a love of Harry Potter (almost believable). At a Muslim marriage networking event – which has a cringe factor of 11/10 – we see a straight-faced South Asian man wearing traditional looking clothes and a topi looking for a conservative Muslim woman, as he side-eyes the hijabi sitting next to him. Their successful ‘match’ is thus implied, whereas Kaz fails to click with a non-hjiabi South Asian girl who is an accountant. A boring repetition of past movies where South Asian girls never seem to cut the mustard/masala for the South Asian male lead character. And we all know who they opt for instead, don’t we?

As we approach the film’s climax, we learn that Maymouna is grappling with her own doubts about marriage. Here, the film seeks to elucidate the reality of what some Pakistani men and women no doubt experience – marrying someone out of sheer pressure to be dutiful children and to please their parents.

This theme of “pretending” is one of the main threads in the film and is exemplified in Zoe’s sister’s marriage where there is an attempt to ignore infidelity. But lumping together problematic marriages to try and prove ‘we are all the same’ only succeeds in showcasing arranged marriages as something inherently oppressive.

Thus the question remains: How does this film deliver its promise of showing arranged marriages in a positive light, where the couple is truly able to “walk into love” as opposed to being coerced into it?

For a film based on Jemima Khan’s own experiences of living in Pakistan for 10 years whilst she was married to ex-cricketer turned-politician Imran Khan, one can appreciate how this film was her “love letter” to Pakistan. You can sense her affinity to the country, and her commitment to showing a more positive side to Pakistan and its people.

This leads to some contemplative questions on representation and impact: Which stories get told and who gets to tell them? Is positive representation enough if it still perpetuates stereotypes and panders to the white gaze? If the burden of representation is unfair on individual artists, then what should fair accountability and critique look like?

Will the British film industry commission more British-Muslim writers of Pakistani heritage who refuse to centre problematic tropes? Perhaps we will have to wait and see whether What’s Love Got To Do With It? is just another entertaining tick-box exercise or whether it’s a catalyst for change. Let’s hope for the latter.

Imrana Mahmood

Imrana Mahmood

Imrana Mahmood is a Creative Producer committed to redefining the arts scene and passionate about working with communities at a grassroots level, with a particular focus on global majority voices. She is the founder of Dar Aminah Book Club and also hosts The Book Club Show on Inspire FM. Her previous projects include Beyond Borders and Echoes of the Diaspora, and she is currently working within the cultural education sector to improve access to the arts for young people. Imrana is a mother of two and in her spare time enjoys reading, watching movies and eating chocolate.