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What’s Love Got to Do With It? (dir. Shekhar Kapur, 2022)

Once upon a time, there was Zoe (Lily James), an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and Kaz (Shazad Latif), a doctor.  Zoe and Kaz are childhood friends, with their families are neighbours.  But one day, Kaz tells Zoe that he has decided to get married – that is, that he has decided to have his parents arrange – or rather, “assist” in arranging, as is the more updated term– his marriage.  Zoe is perplexed as to why Kaz – whom she sees as British and as modern as she is – would want to go through what she clearly sees as kind of an outdated tradition.  To better understand, she decides to make her next documentary about Kaz’s arranged marriage, following it from first steps (Mo the Marriage Broker) to the Nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony.

Zoe pitches her documentary idea to a pair of producers who like her work, but find it very bleak.  But they perk up at the idea of a film about contemporary arranged – er, assisted – marriages, punning on all sorts of rom-com titles for the film Zoe plans to be about “arranged marriages in modern, multi-cultural Britain” – contributing her own pun title to the works, “Love Contractually”.  She convinces Kaz to go along with the idea – though he is initially unwilling, he agrees that if Zoe beats him in a game of table tennis, he’ll do it.  Thus, the journey is set to follow Kaz and his family as they engage in this process of finding a bride.

Kaz, we learn, is prime marriage material.  Young (32 years old), respectful of tradition, and – bonus – a doctor.  Along with his parents Aisha (Shabana Azmi, who brings a solid, quiet grace to the film) and Zahid (Jeff Mirza), they finally find the bride for Kaz, the much younger Maymouna (Sajal Aly), who seems shy and unassuming, and who wants to become a human rights lawyer.  The families meet over Skype and begin the process of joining their two families together through their children.

We can see Maymouna’s initial reticence as, perhaps, the challenge of meeting over the internet, over needing to get to know one another where there is family looming behind to encourage the match and move things in the direction of marriage.  But cracks begin to appear the night of the mehndi ceremony, where the lack of chemistry and a generational divide begin to make themselves shown.  Maymouna cannot wait for the family elders to leave so she and her friends can party, complete with whiskey-spiked cola bottles and joints provided by the hairdresser that put blonde streaks into Maymouna’s hair – this only revealed when she removes her head covering to party.  Kaz slips away with Zoe, noting that he doesn’t think he’ll be missed, and for him, stumbling across a qawwali performance (a cameo by the well-known Pakistani Qawwali singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan) leaves him mesmerized.  But in the end, Kaz never wavers, trusting in the process that brought his parents and grandparents together.

Jemima Khan’s script leans into its breezy, twee moments, balancing them with shades of introspection as Lily contrasts her own dating life, shared through the use of post-modern, deconstructed fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and Cinderella.  In Zoe’s version of these stories, there are no “happily ever afters”; the tropes these stories represent – most particularly the idea of marriage as a conclusion, of marriage as the happy ending to all relationships – are broken down and viewed in contrast to Kaz’s route to marriage – arranged, or, as he prefers “assisted”, as a way of preserving a link to his cultural roots.  Kaz might be the image of a modern British man in many ways, but, as he points out to Zoe, in the end he can never forget that he is South Asian, that he is, as he says, “brown”, because he lives in a society that ultimately never lets him forget it.  “Number 47, number 49 different continents” he reminds Zoe, a quick shorthand that neatly sums up they might grow up on the same street, be friends and neighbours for years, but someone is always going to remind Kaz that he is British-born, and not British.

This is further reinforced by Zoe’s mother, Cath (Emma Thomson), who revels in the culture of her neighbours– this is meant to be comedy, but there is something profoundly sad about the fact that Cath, open to her neighbours and delighted to be included in their family events – still manages to “other” or exoticize them.  She might mean well, but she also illustrates Kaz’s central point:  no matter that he is born in Britain, smokes, plays football, in the end, he’s always going to be diminished or exoticized.

It’s also disappointing that Cath is, mostly, a bit one-note, played entirely for comedy – Emma Thomson manages to portray her with a bit of frivolity, though the character occasionally gets in the way of what’s going on, inserting herself thoughtlessly where she doesn’t belong, rather than giving the scenes what is meant to be lightness. Cath is the character that’s used to prove Kaz’s point about being from a different world than Zoe, even though they grew up right next door to each other.  She doesn’t understand why they have to leave for the airport so early – as Kaz tells her, it’s so he has time to be “randomly selected” in the security checks.  When Cath calls Kaz’s brother’s wedding “exotic”, Zoe notes that’s code for good foreign, versus bad foreign.  And yet, Zoe holds misconceptions as well, even if they aren’t as blatant as what comes out of Cath’s largely unfiltered mouth. 

But the film revels in its contrasts and comparisons.  We have the traditional, arranged relationship between Kaz and Maymouna, but we also have one between Zoe and the veterinarian, James (Oliver Chris).  There is irony in the fact that Zoe settles into this relationship – which she defines as dependable.  She hasn’t been swept off her feet.  He didn’t take her breath away.  She fell in “like” with a man her mother arranged for her to meet, noting some of the same values that Kaz was looking for: –dependability, likeability, comfort – rather than a frothy, romantic fantasy.

The centre of the film – as it should be with a rom-com – is the easy, breezy relationship between childhood friends Zoe and Kaz.  It’s fascinating to watch their complicity, the things they find easy to discuss – as well as the tension filled moments where they hold back from saying what they’re thinking. 

Overall, though, the film is more somber than sparkle, exploring the nature of relationships, arranged or otherwise, and the role family plays in them.  Shekhar Kapur constructs these moments carefully and thoughtfully, giving us much to think about even as we are swept up in the beauty of a wedding in Lahore, and the magic of stumbling across a beautiful and meaningful qawwali performance. Kapur’s film reminds us that even though fairy tale weddings do happen, not everyone gets a fairy tale style happily ever after.  Sometimes, we just have to have faith that we can fall into like, which might turn into love – whatever that means – but, more importantly, we will be surrounded by the people who care for us.

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