Arranged marriage is frowned upon in the UK, and even its legality is often questioned. But what if the broom isn’t forced into it, but simply trusts his devoted parents to choose the woman with whom he will spend the rest of his life? Such is the case with the 30-something, handsome and wealthy Kaz Khan (Shazad Latif). He is a qualified doctor living with his Pakistani mother and father in an affluent West London neighbourhood. He would have a vast selection of female candidates at his feet, however he opts, entirely out of free will, for the “assisted” marriage road, with not only his parents but also a matrimonial agency fully involved in every step of the process.
Dopey, happy-go-lucky Cath (Emma Thompson) and her beautiful and independent daughter Zoe (Lily James) live next door and are very close friends of the Khans. Zoe is hired to make a documentary of Kaz’s marriage, a film meant to inspire other young people to take the same route. She documents the process from the very beginning, as Kaz and his parents meet the agents in charge of locating the lucky female partner. They promptly find the charming and demure Maymouna (Sajal Aly), who looks more than happy about the marriage prospect. She’s in based in Lahore, and the first encounters are via videoconferencing. There’s hardly any privacy. Not only is Zoe capturing their interaction, but both families are closely following the conversation, standing literally a couple of feet behind the “lovebirds”.
Well, “love” is hardly a selection criteria. Like the Tina Turner song in the film title suggests, “what’s love but a second hand emotion”. In a movie populated with simple and effective aphorisms, wordplay and puns: we are told that one should “walk into love” instead of fall in it, that it’s best simmer than boil, that Westerners are very lonely and in deep rest/ depressed. Kaz tells Zoe that 55% of marriages in the UK end up in divorce, but the figure is just 6% for arranged unions, his parents being a sterling success story. The Khans successfully lay a string of arguments as to why tradition should prevail, and their only son is remains adamant that this is indeed the way forward.
Zoe begs to differ. She often challenges her subjects, her arguments consistently falling flat. She wasn’t hired to make a judgment, but instead to register the wonders of the “assisted” arrangement. Kaz refuses to answer Zoe’s most testing questions in front of the camera. The family have a tragic secret that they are not willing to share, but Zoe is determine to push further. The entire Khan clan, (including the formidable grandmother who shudders at anything vaguely un-Muslim), Zoe and her mother Cath eventually fly to Lahore, where an extravagant three-day wedding celebration takes place. But not all is all happy as it seems. It is dissimulation that often prevails. We see a Maymouna crying copiously, only to find out that it is a requirement that the bride should do so. Aly (picture at the top) delivers one of the best performances of the film, her character becoming far more multi-dimensional than apparent at first.
What’s Love Got to Do With It is structured like a romcom infused with Bollywood elements, such as abundant music and lush costumes (even Cath dons a colourful local garment while in Lahore, and tries a few dance moves, to hilarious results). But this isn’t your average, cutesy romantic comedy. Indian director Shekhar Kapur’s seventh feature film contains a number of transgressive elements and very unexpected twists and flavours. Like a heavily sugarcoated cake with a complex and exquisite taste and texture, which you will only experience once you savour it. Gradually, the pillars of tradition begin to collapse, and our characters view an entirely different reality, devoid of “pretend”. Assisted marriage becomes “insisted” marriage, as the movie endeavours to answer the fundamental question: is love more important than family?
And this isn’t the only question raised in the film. Neither British nor Pakistani culture are without flaws, and both have a lot to answer for the trappings in which young people fall. Cath is a cordial racist, describing her neighbours as “elegant despite being Muslims”. The Khans too are very intolerant, welcoming white people into their house however violently rejecting their presence at the heart of the family. What’s Love Got to Do With It asks both cultures to reevaluate their not-so-noble values. It does so with humour, tenderness and a highly enrapturing and entertaining script, however the message of tolerance is unequivocal and assertive.
Kaz reveals that despite being such a successful professional and a good catch, he too experiences racism: “I tell people I’m British-born, but not British”. He also says, in a sentence that exposes both the strange machinations of arranged marriage and of racism: “I want to find a bride that’s British enough for me and Pakistani enough for my parents”. In a way, this remark also extends to the movie itself: What’s Love Got to Do With It is a movie British enough for the UK audiences, and Pakistani enough for Asian Muslims. At least I sincerely hope it is. It deserves wide distribution in the UK, Pakistan, India and elsewhere.
What’s Love Got To Do With It is in UK cinemas on Friday, February 24th. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your hankies!