It would be easy to assume that English screenwriter Jemima Khan’s first movie script What’s Love Got To Do With It? is about her life.
The cross-cultural romantic comedy, recently released in UAE cinemas, follows Zoe, played by Lily James, a documentary filmmaker who, like many of her generation, is a dating app addict, but so far she's only met far-from-appropriate suitors.
Living next door is Zoe’s childhood friend Kaz, played by Shazad Latif, who has decided to find love through a traditional arranged marriage to a bride in Pakistan.
From scenic settings in London, to the vibrancy and energy of Lahore, Zoe films Kaz’s journey to marriage and finds herself facing some of her own assumptions about dating, life and love.
“It's not a biopic,” Khan tells The National. “But every anecdote, every character, pretty much every line, is derived from something that I've seen or someone I've met.”
Khan was married to cricket star Imran Khan from 1995 to 2004. At 21, she moved to Lahore and Islamabad and for more than a decade was completely immersed in a culture and traditions far removed from her own.
Khan’s experience of living in Pakistan profoundly changed her perspective on how to find love.
“I don't think that there is any perfect way [to find love],” she says. “We know what are the wrong ways. It's easier to say that the two ends of the spectrum — which are, no choice in forced marriage and too much choice on relentless dating apps — are problematic. But I think it's harder to say what is the right way.”
The two different approaches to finding love and varying attitudes towards romance in the East and West formed the nucleus of what Khan wanted to explore in the film.
Grounded in reality
While Khan’s marriage ended amicably, with the couple co-parenting their two sons and showing public support for each other’s endeavours, it’s not what one would call “the stuff” of a romantic comedy.
This is what makes Khan’s choice to spend more than 10 years working on a script for a genre of film characterised by its fairy tale endings interesting.
Khan jokingly says romcoms “have slightly ruined me, generally, in life”.
Whether it’s the classic Richard Curtis films or something from Nora Ephron, romantic comedies have been accused of setting audiences up to expect a particular kind of transformational, all-encompassing love that, Khan believes, people will always feel disappointed not to find.
“I love watching romcoms,” Khan says. “But I particularly like romcoms that are grounded in a certain reality.”
That's what she's achieved with What’s Love Got To Do With It?, which is a thoughtful examination of romance, love, family and identity that uses the classic genre blueprint while delivering a true exploration of cross-cultural ideas and representation.
Authenticity and diversity don’t feel forced into the story and cliched stereotypes, often associated with the genre, are nowhere to be seen.
These were conscious and important considerations Khan made when writing the script. She actively avoided the negative tropes depicting arranged marriages as “bad” or the use of arranged marriage candidates as comical punchlines.
Instead, Khan let the story unfold through her characters as a means to dispel cliches of representation and the assumptions people make about Pakistan.
Working with Shekhar Kapur
She believes that working with director Shekhar Kapur helped further ground her script in realism as they were looking at the same story from completely different perspectives. While she was focused on capturing humour, Kapur was not as interested in the comedy.
“He wants to get the tears,” she says. “He gave it a depth and a tenderness that maybe the cynic in me had slightly kept the brakes on.”
Kapur, known in the West for the Academy Award-winning period drama Elizabeth and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age, was a surprising name to see in this type of film.
“What got me interested in this script is that it was attacking or exploring something in every young person's mind these days,” Kapur says. “It is the question of love, the question of identity, the question of intimacy.”
Kapur explains the quest to find love — an age-old theme in storytelling — has fundamentally changed over time. In a modern context, finding love is also the battle against one’s own internal obstacles — an element he felt Khan’s script beautifully explored.
“Even though it's termed as a romcom, the script went far deeper than that,” he says. “It explores the idea of family, the idea of commitment, the idea of conflict within who you are.”
Kapur balances epic scenes across two countries, intimate moments between characters and adds a visual depth, scope and grandness that has been lacking in romcoms over the years. This is also why the film feels like a genuine representation, not only of cultures, but of people working through internal obstacles and intimacy.
“These are human beings that I'm dealing with ultimately,” he says. “I wanted to keep my focus on looking at my characters as human beings moulded by their culture, and knowing that beyond their culture, they are fundamentally human. I hope I achieved that.”
Above all, What’s Love Got To Do With It? is entertaining.
“We all want to be entertained and to feel good and to be transported in the cinema,” Khan says.
“What I really want our film to do is bring some joy and entertain and, if in the process, some previously held beliefs are challenged, then that's a great bonus. And I hope that's the case.”
What’s Love Got To Do With It? is in UAE cinemas now