The British rom-com is a curious icon. Sputtering male leads and self-deprecation somehow turned our national characteristics into a money pot; by the time the noughties were over, we were a sensation among the anglosphere, a miracle that made socially award, misanthropic Brits feel we were sexy.
Strangely, though, I never noticed any of my British-Pakistani friends being told they sounded just like Hugh Grant in a bar—although there was never a short supply of tourists asking them where they really were from.
Having emigrated to Pakistan for seven years in a whirlwind romance with the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan in her 20’s, Jemima Khan’s screenplay What’s Love Got to Do With It? is keen to explore that disconnect—questioning if that Western brand of romance is really the be-all-end-all for the modern British love story.
Overworked, perpetually single documentary maker Zoe (Lilly James) is the childhood friend and neighbour of Pakistani doctor Kazim (Shazad Latif); a thirty something still cool enough to kick a football but who hides in his parent’s treehouse to smoke. Her mother Cath (Emma Thompson) is dotty, warm and a little racist; and terrified her daughter is doomed to be a spinster. Zoe and Kazim are clearly in love, but don’t want risk it; and after following his traditional Muslim family and opting for an arranged marriage (the politically sensitive term, he informs us, is ‘assisted’), Zoe is compelled to document her friend’s romance; cynically thinking it will further her own career.
While Thompson and James play their parts well, the Pakistani cast give the movie its highs, especially as things shift to Lahore. A Bollywood style score and dance sequence, Qawwali music that calls love a ‘mental illness’, and the deft hand of director Shekhar Kapur creates a Joyland style nightlife that breathes life into the crowds, values and sounds of Pakistan. Highlights are also with the movie’s marriage advisor played by Asim Chaudhry (referred to as the ‘scene stealer’ by director Kapur); and the ancient Khan matriarch—who in a neo-realist style is both the movie’s male lead’s real and fictional grandmother—shines when she describes London as a ‘brothel’ in bitterly poetic Urdu.
Jemima’s script has a knack for strong one-liners that keep up the inner-life of her characters, but beyond a smart double act by two idiot TV producers, once back in London, the movie more-or-less reverts to the traditional rom-com plotting as Zoe confronts her dormant feelings for Kazim.
Despite the tried and tested Working Title structure, Khan reflects a Britain that’s more cultured and complicated than Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary or Love Actually lets on. And unlike the lonely British tourist wondering if he really can get laid in America, the film’s debate on arranged and accidental relationships never gives up an easy answer. Acknowledging the ‘continent’ between the families’ redbrick homes, love, in all its forms, is served up like a pleasant jelabi dessert: tangled, messy, and always sweet.