In What’s Love Got to Do With It?, writer Jemima Khan and director Shekhar Kapur enter into the storied tradition of the culture-clash-based interracial rom-com. The movie follows documentary filmmaker Zoe (Lily James) as she captures the arranged marriage process of her neighbor and childhood friend, Kaz (Shazad Latif).
Although I’m both a sucker for a good rom-com and a fan of Kapur’s Oscar-nominated Elizabeth, I went into this film with some trepidation. The premise alone of What’s Love Got to Do With It? smacks of The Big Sick and Meet the Patels. Both romantic comedies – one based on writer and star Kumail Nanjiani’s life, the other an actual documentary about Ravi Patel – drew praise for their refreshing representations of South Asians in the diaspora. However, both were framed around a Brown man’s cultural background being the ultimate hurdle in his journey to love as he finds his happily ever after in the arms of a white woman.
Both films also threw Brown women under the bus, either as shrewish, overbearing mothers or as utterly expendable marriage prospects to be discarded in favor of the White Love Interest. That in these films Nanjiani and Patel both have white partners is in no way a bad thing. There certainly is rich ground for storytelling and humor when it comes to cross-cultural relationships. What is concerning is that these films set a precedent in which the interracial romances being told always have to feature a white person. These stories always seem to place the cultural background of the Person of Colour as the oppressive, outdated rival to the freedom of the West.
The second major red flag re: What’s Love Got to Do With It? is its focus on arranged marriage. Arranged marriage is a staple of many South Asian cultures that have long been exoticized and vilified. And thanks to Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, it is now enjoying a moment in the spotlight. The popular series reframes it as a quirky dating process rather than the glorified human trading that many seem to think it is.
But arranged marriage is a murky institution to portray in the West because there is a general lack of nuance surrounding it. On one end of the spectrum, it’s assumed to be something regressive and patriarchal that’s only ever forced on couples. On the other, when it’s understood in its more modern iteration as “assisted marriage,” a form of matchmaking many adults opt for, it’s sanitized of some of its very real, very troubling biases. Colorism, casteism, and classism are baked into the foundations of arranged marriage, and it’s always tenuous trying to see this acknowledged without feeding into Western stereotypes of an archaic institution that confirm Orientalist assumptions of South Asian backwardsness.
All this is to say: for what amounted to a pretty straightforward romcom, What’s Love Got to Do With It? was carrying an unusual amount of baggage.
I am relieved to report that for the most part, the movie does a decent job of straddling two worlds without trying to condemn or lionize either one. Initially, I assumed Zoe’s documentary was going to be a fairly contrived framing device, or another entry in a long line of romcom “women careers” ranging from unrealistically glamorous journalists to unrealistically glamorous publishers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it ended up providing one of my favorite of the movie’s thematic throughlines. From the get-go, Zoe is using her movie as a way to question and critique arranged marriage.
There’s a lot of the usual “but you can’t marry someone you don’t know” / “What about LOVE?” / “Are you being forced to do this?” But what’s refreshing is that Kaz is allowed to be self-assured in his choices; while audiences may understand Zoe’s perspective, the movie doesn’t treat her as though she’s undeniably right. In fact, it turns into a parallel interrogation of Western dating norms. There’s a constant comparison between Zoe’s doubts about arranged marriage and her own tribulations with apps and casual dating. Both cultures’ norms are shown as complicated, messy, and challenging— but neither one is treated as right or wrong.
Because this is a rom-com and stays fizzily lighthearted for the most part, the critiques of the arranged marriage system aren’t particularly harsh, but they are explored in ways that feel authentic. There are explorations of the colorism and patriarchal structures that affect arranged marriage – there is a reference to “wheatish complexion,” and the awkward conversation between Kaz and his parents about how religiously observant they expect a bride to be. Again, the film’s strength in depicting these issues lies in the balance between how the two cultures are explored.
While Kaz’s parents and grandmother betray some of the biases in their community, Zoe’s mother (who is played with relish by an Emma Thompson who seems here for a laugh – and I mean that as a compliment) is their mirror as a white British woman. She is endearingly quirky and genuinely affectionate towards her Pakistani neighbors. But she also exhibits the kind of casual, thoughtless everyday racism that is so common in otherwise “progressive” white communities. She jokes about how lucky it is that the Khans are their neighbors and not “some of those other Muslims,” and is constantly challenged by Zoe for her views. It adds a layer of authenticity and depth to Kaz’s frustration with Zoe – she will never truly be able to understand his experience and choices. Being Pakistani in Britain means he’s been shaped in ways that she, a white woman, is simply unable to grasp.
If there’s a weak point in the premise of What’s Love Got to Do With It?, it comes in the form of Maymouna (Sajal Ali), the beautiful young Pakistani Bride on whom Kaz lands. She’s not vilified or ridiculed by the narrative; in fact, she’s treated sympathetically throughout, with her final scenes attempting to showcase her own agency. But she’s a severely underwritten character, and although Ali does a fine job, there’s not much for her to work with. This is probably an inevitable result of romcom conventions – typically, the “other” men and women exist to be obstacles and plot devices, not characters in their own right. But it’s a reminder that for all representation that may have progressed, there’s still a shortage of stories that put Women of Colour, Pakistani women, or Muslim women in the spotlight.
As far as the leads go, Latif and James are charming and share great chemistry, which is the whole package as far as rom-com stars go. Overall, the supporting cast of What’s Love Got to Do With It? is equally enjoyable. Along with the aforementioned Thompson, Shabana Azmi is characteristically wonderful as Kaz’s mother. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan also makes a cameo for reasons not entirely clear to me, but I’ll never complain about hearing those pipes (and it’ll get my Desi parents to tune in). I smiled, laughed, hid grins in my pillow, and even shed the odd tear. What’s Love Got to Do With It? is not reinventing the wheel in any way. But it’s warm, it’s fun, and I left feeling like the cultures depicted were truly respected – so we’ll call this one a win.
For more from Meha, read her review of Joyland here.