'What’s Love Got to Do with It': Shekhar Kapur's Romcom Venture Is Funny and Makes You Feel Good

A diasporic drama is a tricky territory. It’s been milked dry a long time ago via clichéd gags, painful stereotypes, and predictable plots. Romcoms have suffered even more. 'What’s Love Got to Do with It' dispels all such misgivings.

Kaz Khan (Shazad Latif), a young British man of Pakistani origin, is defined by contradictions. Even though he’s financially independent – a doctor – he seeks his parents’ approval like a pre-teen. Yet he has no qualms about sneaking out for a cigarette. He wants an ‘arranged marriage’, but when he accompanies his parents to a matchmaking service, he insists that his wife-to-be shouldn’t be “too conservative”. As a devout Muslim, he doesn’t drink (actually, well, he does – red wine, sometimes).  

Such people make for compelling ‘characters’. His neighbour and childhood friend, Zoe (Lily James), happens to be a documentary filmmaker. Looking for a story idea, she decides to follow Kaz for the next few months to make a movie exploring the tradition of arranged marriage. (Tentative title: Love Contractually.) 

Like Kaz, What’s Love Got to Do with It features remarkable contrasts. Shekhar Kapur returns to direction after 15 years to make – at least I didn’t expect – a romcom. It has Jemima Khan making her debut as a screenwriter. And it features two legendary actresses sharing screen time, Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi.

A diasporic drama is a tricky territory. It’s been milked dry a long time ago via clichéd gags, painful stereotypes, and predictable plots. Romcoms have suffered even more. They died a long time ago – that isn’t even news – now the discussions hinge on whether streaming platforms have been able to revive the genre. So a diasporic film and a romcom raises instant doubts.

What’s Love Got to Do with It, however, dispelled my misgivings in less than five minutes. It had nothing to do with the family dynamics or the chemistry between the leads. It was a peripheral conversation between Zoe and the documentary’s producers – where they crack the arranged marriage idea – featuring snappy dialogues and brisk cuts matching the former beat by beat. I was hooked.

As she documents Kaz’s quest to find a bride, the story and its characters emerge in sharp focus. The Khans and Zoe’s family make an endearing pair. Her mom, Cath (Thompson), dresses up for Eid, says “Inshallah”, and dives in their daily affairs like a vintage desi aunt. Azmi is as resplendent and charming – I can watch an entire film in a similar setting featuring just her and Thompson. Khan’s screenplay, too, is much smarter than it initially lets on.

In an early scene, when Zoe asks Kaz why he’d opt for an arranged marriage, he cites stats: the divorce rate for Brits, 55%; the divorce rate for arranged marriage, 6%. “It works,” he adds. I thought it was insecure cultural chauvinism – inching me towards a rant resembling a Twitter thread – but as the story goes deep, you realise that the movie never bought that logic.

A still from ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It.’

It doesn’t stretch itself to negate Kaz, either. The characters have their own worldviews; the film has its own. The unlikely collaboration between Kapur and Khan – an Indian director who has made Hollywood films, and a British journalist who lived in Pakistan for a decade – befits a cross-cultural story like this. It’s especially evident in the portion set in Lahore, where the movie doesn’t succumb to easy exotica or a rose-tinted perspective. It even weaves in a (quiet) indictment of the subcontinental families prioritising familial honour over love.

And it does so while knowing its ultimate goal: that it’s a genre piece providing familiar pleasures. Romcoms though, by their design, can also be predictable. At the start, What’s Love Got to Do with It seems to be straining to ‘surprise’ the audience. Just see the premise: a man and a woman who are friends; he is about to get married to someone else – any guesses though who he’ll end up with?

I first found the whole documentary angle an obvious red herring but again, like most things in this film, it’s not as straight-forward. It only struck me later that the movie wasn’t trying to trick us in any way – it subverts our expectations twice by staying true to its characters and yet justifies its genre, story, and themes. 

The smooth storytelling, though, is the most striking part about it. The writing absorbs it all with an even hand – love, heartbreak, comedy, confusion, insularity, openness – without unfurling manifesto-like statements. No one is good enough that they don’t have flaws, and no one is bad enough that they can’t be redeemed.

This is a gentle film that doesn’t underscore its generosity; it’s a funny film that makes you laugh at unexpected moments. It nails two essential facets of a drama like this: that disagreements need not culminate in hostility, and simple need not be simplistic. Or, going further inwards, a movie can make you feel good without cheating its audience and, more importantly, without cheating itself.