So Shekhar Kapur got a move on and finally made a movie. It certainly took him a while. His latest, the English-language comedy What’s Love Got to Do with It?, comes over fifteen years after Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a stretch of time in which directors in his home country tend to spawn, prosper, and perish. To be fair, Kapur has kept busy, with projects picked and abandoned. One kept hearing about his Paani (literally, water), which, given how long it has spent in the cold storage, has practically turned to ice.
Kapur did direct episodes on the TV shows Damien and Will. What’s Love Got to Do with It? resembles none of those projects in scale or ambition. It kicks off as a warm, genial comedy in London, where Zoe (Lily James), an ‘award-winning documentary filmmaker’, is pitching a doc on honour killings to a pair of jumpy producers. They shoot it down — it’s not feel-good enough — so Zoe gives them what they want: she’ll film Kazim (Shazad Latif), her British Pakistani neighbour and friend, as he skips the dating scene altogether and goes in for an arranged, or ‘assisted’, marriage. The producers perk up at the thought (‘Meet The Parents, First’, ‘Love, Contractually’, ‘I Hope She’s A...Pretty Woman’) and give Zoe the go-ahead.
What’s Love Got to Do with It? (English)
Kazim, or Kaz, and Zoe have been friends since childhood. When he first comes out to her with his marriage plans, there’s a flicker of awkwardness. The tension gradually magnifies as Zoe, along with her mum, Cath (Emma Thompson), accompanies Kaz and his family to the wedding in Lahore. He’s been arranged to marry Maymouna (Sajal Aly), a sweet, reticent lawyer—Kaz himself is a doctor. They look like a match, but Zoe is aghast. She keeps asking Kaz, in earnest, why someone would spend the rest of their lives with a stranger. But is that a genuine confusion — or a sign of a more personal dejection?
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What’s Love Got to Do with It? is most enjoyable when mining multi-cultural, multi-ethnic London for laughs. “We were on the same team for the Muslim Muggles Quiz,” a couple tells to Zoe’s camera. “It’s for Harry Potter fans looking for Islamic values in the series.” Jemima Khan’s screenplay gently ribs both Islamic conservatism and the generalised Islamophobia of white Britain. “You wouldn’t think they are Muslims,” Cath says of her modern-looking, English-talking neighbours, having accepted biriyani parcels and attended a next-door nikah in a tent. Yet she isn’t all that different, is she? Throughout the film, she keeps setting Zoe up with eligible men. The cultural parallels lead up to the Royal family, Khan and Kapur stopping short of burdening the film with overt post-colonial analyses.
The London bits have a decidedly cutesy look and feel, complete with dogs, bedtime stories and a cameo by British comedian Asim Chaudhary (he plays Mo, The Matchmaker). But the Lahore section is full of heavy emotions, even melodrama. The main wedding has enough crosscurrents and perfunctory dancing to fill a Mira Nair film. Kapur shot the film during the Covid-19 pandemic, recreating Lahore in London and Suffolk. Limitations notwithstanding, it’s not the best-looking film, far less accomplished than what other directors have managed in lockdown. I was willing to cut him some slack until I remembered Masoom (1983), Kapur’s debut film, where he worked wonders with a few good actors and a large house.
Shazad Latif is perfect as Kaz, a sharp, self-possessed young man who sneaks cigarettes around the house and irritably agrees to Zoe that he’s a ‘proud Muslim’. Lily James is fine too, if a little hemmed in by the romcom heroine template. Shabana Azmi and Jeff Mirza have animated, one-note roles as Kaz’s parents. Thompson stands out in the supporting cast, especially once Cath arrives in Lahore, looking positively bewildered - and then delighted - with her discovery of masala Coke.
The film adopts a ‘pros-and-cons’ approach to understanding arranged marriages in a modern context. The second half has a lot of tangled emotions and points of conflict, but not enough time to resolve them truthfully. Kapur, now 77 and evidently less confrontational as a filmmaker, seems eager to leave viewers with that warm, fuzzy feeling. The film wraps up sweet, but leaves a weird taste in the mouth. It’s a bit like masala Coke.
What’s Love Got to Do with It? releases in theatres in India on March 17.