“…You don’t have to start with love, you end with love …”
What’s Love Got To Do With It (WLGTDWI), co-produced and written by Jemima Khan, has been described by her as her “love letter to Pakistan.” She has said so in the dozens of interviews that she’s sat through, as part of the movie’s pre-release promotions. Her words come back to you as you watch the movie unfold on the cinema screen.
On screen is a Pakistan that you could certainly fall in love with, a far cry from the terror-struck land usually depicted in mass media. Lahore swirls on screen in all its colourful glory, with the camera navigating its many niches: the ancient mosques, the winding bazars bordered by samosa wallas and bangle stands, the havelis in androon sheher [inner city] that come alive with music at night, the exuberance and festivity quintessential to the desi wedding.
It is all quite enchanting and very true — perhaps just as true as the country’s darker side, but one that has hardly ever formed the backbone of a feel-good, internationally produced rom-com.
But WLGTDWI is more than just a romantic comedy. It is more than just an enticing ode to Pakistan. Look beyond the boy-meets-girl romance and the beautiful visuals and you find layers: a nod to different cultures and the idiosyncrasies within them; a fleeting but pointed commentary on societal prejudices; a sensitive depiction of the innate struggle of individuals born in one country but accepting to abide by the norms of another; an objective, discerning portrayal of a community bound by age-old values, slowly inching its way towards accepting a new-age world.
Consider one of the main aspects within the storyline: the stages involved in forming an arranged marriage, or rather an ‘assisted’ one, where the parents connect a boy and a girl who don’t know each other from before, and hope that they get along well enough to agree to be together forever.
It is a notion that is altogether alien to most of the movie’s audience in the West, and could easily have been depicted as archaic and redundant. Instead, the story simply moves along, refraining from sermonising or slipping into melancholy, narrating events as they come, letting the audience know that, while many of these customs and these people may seem to be different from them, they really aren’t.
Writer and co-producer Jemima Khan’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, starring an ensemble star cast, has just hit cinema screens around the world. What prompted her to get into rom-com territory and how did it all come about?
The arranged marriage trope, of course, may be one of the unique factors drawing the audience in the West to go and see the movie. The Pakistani audience, entirely accustomed to such unions, is likely to want to see WLGTDWI for other reasons.
For one, it stars Sajal Aly, one of the country’s most loved, most accomplished actors. Also, it is helmed by Jemima Khan, who arguably has legendary status in Pakistan — I told her so when I talked to her! And of course, we’re thrilled that, finally, a major international movie is focusing on the lighter, happier side to Pakistan.
But, like I wrote earlier, there is more to the movie. There is the script, written intelligently and engagingly, peppered with distinctively Pakistani cultural nuances and a dry wit which draws a chuckle now and again.
There’s director Shehkar Kapur, manoeuvring the scenes with a gimlet eye so that you are drawn as much to the characters as the visuals around them — the cluttered rooms, the ageing walls of a haveli and the bustling streets of Lahore, among others.
There’s the lead pair, Shazad Latif and Lily James, who are dreamy together, smiling, locking eyes, having a hot ‘cuppa’ on a rooftop overlooking the Badshahi Mosque. In fact, I feel that the movie would have had benefitted by building more upon their relationship.
One ended up wanting to know more about what made him tick, and how she ultimately came to terms with her feelings for him. You want to understand how close they are as friends and catch a glimpse of their past memories together. Adding all this, though, would have definitely made the movie a lot longer, which is always a concern given the increasingly short attention spans of audiences.
And then there’s the ensemble cast, which includes heavyweights such as Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi. They are all expert actors and you connect with them instantly; Emma as the garrulous next-door neighbour who loves desi weddings, and doesn’t want to see her daughter end up alone; Shabana Azmi as the Pakistani mother living in Britain wanting her children to be happy, while being a stickler for customs.
And then there’s Sajal Aly, of course, as the girl who isn’t as conventional as she seems, and who doesn’t speak much but emotes volumes with her eyes. While we’re dwelling upon Sajal’s performance, she performs well, but her role itself is quite limited. It may fit into the overall story, but a few additional scenes or, at least, dialogues would have made it easier to understand her character better. Sajal is an exceptional actor and the movie would have only benefitted had her role been slightly longer.
There’s another star in the movie — in my mind at least: the city of Lahore. While conversing with me via a Zoom meeting, Jemima explains that, since her team couldn’t travel to Lahore because of the coronavirus pandemic, all of Lahore’s visuals have been shot by filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
“She stepped in and it was really amazing,” says Jemima. “And I was a real pain, too. I kept going back to her and saying that, no, it needs to look more beautiful. I was really specific about which mosques I wanted her to film, which roads and which buildings.”
And you remember all these places from the time that you spent in Lahore, I ask her.
“I lived there for long enough to know the beautiful bits,” she smiles. “Half the story is set in Lahore and it was important for me to show a colourful, beautiful version of it, one that my friends in London didn’t know because they haven’t seen that side of Pakistan in the news. This was Lahore in all its glory!”
She continues, “Our old friend Yousuf Salahuddin has this beautiful haveli in the old city and we actually recreated a courtyard in London, modelled on Yousuf’s haveli, where we shot the scenes in which Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is singing a qawwali.
“We also filmed in Shepherd’s Bush Market, making it look like Anarkali Bazaar. The market is in a pretty diverse area and there were a lot of Pakistanis there who were either from Lahore or had relatives in Lahore. I kept asking them if our set looked believable enough and they told me that they couldn’t have told the difference!”
Was it a deliberate decision to work with a cast and crew which included professionals from India and Pakistan?
“In the case of Sajal’s character, we definitely wanted to work with someone who was Pakistani,” says Jemima. “I reached out to Yousuf Salahuddin and asked him to suggest an actress. I have always thought of him as a king of culture. He has such amazing taste and keeps discovering new musical talent, and has such a strong understanding of old Lahore. He suggested Sajal. We auditioned her via Zoom and she came on board.
“From my perspective, I had this wonderful lead actress in Lily James and I needed someone who could rival her and be every bit as commanding as her on screen. I have always felt that, even in the films that I have enjoyed based on the theme of arranged marriages, the candidate for the marriage, who has often been female, has been the sub-optimal one.
“We wanted to put it across that Qaz [Shazad Latif’s character] was actually quite taken with this girl, and the decision to marry her was one that he was comfortable with making and even excited about. Sajal fit in perfectly. She is incredibly talented as an actress and she’s also a star. It’s hard to not just be watching her when she is on screen.”
Jemima continues: “As for Shabana Azmi, even when I was living in Pakistan I remember that she was considered a legend. I think that she’s sensational in the movie, so plausible and moving and funny at times.”
And what about director Shekhar Kapur? “Well, we definitely wanted a South Asian director. Shekhar had worked with the production company Working Title Films before, and they felt that he had the vision to give the movie a cinematic scale and tell a story that featured some very strong female characters.
“From my point of view, I wanted Shekhar to be part of the movie because I find his work very interesting. He doesn’t just focus on the comedy. I think that he brought a lot of depth and truth to the story that might not have been there had we opted for a straightforward comedy director.”
Jemima’s earlier work consists of a number of hard-hitting documentaries. What prompted her to delve into a romantic comedy this time round?
“I specifically didn’t want to do that with [WLGTDWI],” she says. “I feel that Pakistan is often seen in a very serious way, in a black and white way, in documentaries. I think I haven’t seen Pakistan in a global release in a romantic-comedy genre before. I wanted to create something which is colourful and celebratory.”
WLGTDWI is definitely that. It’s the sort of movie that makes you laugh. You leave the cinema feeling happy. And if you’re Pakistani, you may just also heave a sigh of relief.
Published in Dawn, ICON, March 19th, 2023