I’m not too sure about you, but it has been a very long time since I thoroughly enjoyed a modern rom-com, but What’s Love Got to Do with It? certainly broke that streak. What’s Love’s director Shekar Kapur takes a clichéd rom-com formula and many over-done tropes, that have historically centred on white characters, and attempts to reframe them for a modern multicultural audience. While at times audiences might find themselves cringing at the stereotypical dialogue (and maybe bored by the predictability of the storyline) the heartfelt performances and unique narrative make it a standout of its genre.
The relatability of the storyline comes from the lived experience of its author Jemima Khan, whose insight comes from marrying a Muslim man and living in Pakistan, as well as raising children between London and Lahore. In What’s Love this intercultural tension is between two friends who have grown up on the same street in London, but in vastly different worlds. Zoe (Lily James) grows up in a ‘typical’ white family, and has made her way as a successful documentary film-maker, who is now looking for her next project. Her childhood best friend Kaz has grown up in a ‘typical’ UK Pakistani family, become a doctor and is now asking his parents to arrange the next step of his life – marriage. Their worlds collide when Zoe, facing rejection for all her more serious documentary ideas, decides that her bestie Kaz’s ‘bizarre’ and ‘outdated’ quest for a parentally picked partner would make the perfect light and heartwarming subject for her next film. Little do they know where this might lead them.
The story unfurls before in an almost predictable way – Zoe interviews Kaz about his motives behind the ‘assisted’ marriage, and as he sprukes the benefits of this arrangement, Zoe questions not only his future marriage, but the validity of marriage in general. Aside from her moments interviewing Kaz we see Zoe fumble through various hook-ups and potential fairytale relationships, all to come continually crashing down as they do not meet up to her expectations. Eventually we follow the pair (and their families) to Lahore where Kaz meets his match Maymouna (Sajal Ali). These parts of the story are all very cliche and repetitive – it’s almost a modern version of When Harry Met Sally with an attempt at the gritty reality popularised by the likes of Fleabag.
While What’s Love can feel at times like a remix of every rom-com Working Title has already produced, there are two things that set it apart. First is the performances from the two family matriarchs: Aisha Khan (Shabana Azmi) and Cath (Emma Thompson). Thompson’s performance is uncharacteristically cringe worthy, but does a great job at capturing the essence of a well-meaning ‘ally’ as she tries her best to relate to her Pakistani neighbours. She is constructed in opposition to the reserved Shabana Azmi, who’s nuanced performance paints us a portrait of a woman who balances between tradition and modernity – between preserving culture and doing what is best for her family.
The second element of this film that makes it feel far more impactful, is the way that it dissects how the Khan family walks between two worlds – the expectations of modern British society and the values that run deep in their cultural heritage. While the way that Kapur navigates this on screen will certainly bring you to tears.
What’s Love Got to Do with It? isn’t perfect – it’s cliché and stands back from any profound statements on love, assisted or otherwise. It is however a lovely rumination on the interplay of culture, values and love in our modern multicultural world.