Many Asians continue to embrace arranged marriages in the sub-continent. Even in the UK, modern arranged marriages involve a variety of matchmaking practices where each family tailors its own version to suit modern identities and ambitions. For the sizeable migrant population comprising Indians and Pakistanis, it may not be a homogeneous tradition, though by and large it remains the preferred choice.
At the heart of the story is an enterprising London-based filmmaker Zoe (Lily James), who proposes to make a documentary about Muslims and their obsession with arranged marriages. “Or assisted marriages,” as her neighbour and friend Kazim (Shahzad Latif) explains.
The Khans (Azmi and Jeff Mirza) are not just next-door neighbours; they are best friends too. Zoe barges into Kazim’s place unannounced and so does her mom Cath (Emma Thompson), who happens to be Aisha Khan’s best friend. Kazim has a reason to look so self-possessed: he has agreed to obey his mother’s command unquestioningly and would go in for an arranged match. On the other hand, for Zoe the concept of such alliances is quite alien — and she somehow can’t wrap her head around it.
Committed that she is to her job, she gets excited to cast for her next subject and persuades him to let her film the wedding. She being an out-and-out westerner has a preconceived notion of the kind of woman he has decided to spend the rest of his life with.
And so, after several suggestions for its title from her colleagues, she settles for “Love Contractually”. She feels the need to flesh out her film with sequences featuring Kazim’s parents, and besides documenting his journey, her camera focuses on one-on-one interviews with the grandmother and another arranged-match couple, Kazim’s younger brother and his wife.
During filming, one gets a glimpse of all the characters, including Zoe and Kazim, who draw your attention to the light-hearted banter between Kazim and Zoe and their unmistakable dependence on each other. Their faces sparkle at every meeting even as they discuss, plan and look at logistics of the shoot meticulously.
Zoe follows Kazim all the way from London to Lahore, where his betrothed bride-to-be, the beautiful, shy and innocent-looking Maymouna (Sajal Ali) is all set to tie the knot with Kazim. Earlier, it was merely a Skype chat that had made Kazim feel that they were poles apart. But such “marriages are always followed by love,” he assures himself.
Clearly, he is convinced and pushes his own desire to walk the aisle on his own and not see it as a choice of his parents. This, for Zoe, is reason enough to cast him in her film. When questioned further by Zoe, Kazim turns around and says statistics reveal that the divorce rate for love marriages in the UK is 55 per cent, but it’s just 6 per cent for arranged matrimonies. A little confused, Zoe begins to challenge her own outlook and standpoint towards relationships. Perhaps, underneath all the veneer of self-assured independence, she also begins to question the concept of “assisted marriages” and her own beliefs as well.
Films based on the sub-continental diaspora have a template that is almost revered and sacred. Trying hard to keep their traditions alive – more so in an alien land – parents fearing cross-cultural clashes insist on getting their children married to the most eligible man or woman from within the community. As if by doing so, they would ensure that the evils of modernity would not touch their dependents.
The dichotomy that exists in contemporary Britain is a little awkward for some because a section believes that arranged marriages are akin to ‘forced marriages’. Another group believes that such alliances are quaint but could be perfectly acceptable with a bit of adjustment to make them look more adaptable and amenable.
Shekhar Kapoor treads softly on a subject that could easily have turned a romcom into a hackneyed drama about a Pakistani family and its tradition-bound values.
Its writer Jemima Khan (former wife of cricketer-politician Imran Khan of Pakistan), who converted to Islam when she started living in Lahore after her marriage, sees to it that British Pakistanis are not misrepresented.
Shekhar lends the film a glossy layered coating that’s just short of grandness, while all along dealing with the film’s theme most honestly, yet without falling into the trite formula-ridden angle. He has done away with the exaggerated emotions that one is so used to seeing among Asians living in the UK in Hindi films.
Both Latif and Lily James enact their roles with professional ease. They are expected to be charmers without an iota of affectation, which they do, and they make a winsome pair.
From among the other performers, Emma Thompson seems to be having a ball. She attempts to deliver a heart-warming performance with her funny and rather overly excited expressions. She succeeds occasionally, more as a curious lady who enjoys learning about different aspects of Islamic marriages and compares them with her own cultural experiences.
Shabana doesn’t fail in her approach to her characterisation. As Aisha, she alternates between being the quiet dignified mom and being firm and uncompromising when she gets rattled. Sajal Ali as Maymouna is a delight to watch.
The otherwise expansive British-in-its-approach film, where more emphasis might be on the clashes between Asian and English values and cultures, manages to remain very South Asian at heart. The climax, in particular, becomes a family drama that shocks more than it thrills all the people involved. Come to think of it, the last ten minutes bring home the message not even gently, but quite compulsorily, typically like in any Karan Johar film.
What’s not even remotely Bollywood is the understated background score by Nitin Sawhney and a lovely qawwali sung live by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. Remi Adefarasin with his brilliant lens evokes the required setting, particularly the scenes filmed at night, the dark and light filter used to highlight the mood.
Appealing to the masses, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ does have a fresh look at Hollywood feel-good cinema where everyone is different and yet is happy in his or her own skin.
Movie: What’s Love Got to Do With It?
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Lily James, Shazad Latif, Emma Thompson, Shabana Azmi, Sajal Aly and Jeff Mirza
–By Arnab Banerjee