From London and Lahore, With Love

Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, writer Jemima Khan, actor Shabana Azmi and the cast talk about their new film What’s Love Got To Do With It?
From London and Lahore, With Love
From London and Lahore, With Love

Shekhar Kapur’s latest venture What’s Love Got To Do With It? might share its title with the popular song by American legend Tina Turner—and her 1993 biopic—but rather than dwelling on cynicism and the disappointments in love, it celebrates romance, that too the cross-cultural kind. 

What’s Love… that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and was the opening film at the Red Sea International Film Festival, comes fifteen long years after Kapur’s last feature film Elizabeth: The Golden Age(2007) and a segment he directed in the omnibus movie New York, I Love You (2008). It took as long as ten years for Kapur’s collaborator, writer-journalist-producer-philanthropist Jemima Khan, to wrap up her first script. “I have never written a script before, so it took me a long time to develop it from the first draft to the screen,” she says. It involved several rewrites. “I have done every iteration of the script possible, to imagine and to find what works. So, I think a major time was spent just on trial and error,” she looks back at her decade-long involvement with the passion project. 

Inspired by the multicultural experiences Khan got exposed to through her marriage with Pakistani politician-cricketer Imran Khan, What’s Love… has popular English actress Lily James playing Zoe, a London filmmaker who decides to document her neighbour and childhood friend Doctor Kazim’s (Shazad Latif) impending wedding in Lahore to Maymouna (Sajal Aly), a girl he has only seen and interacted with virtually. Her inquiry into the phenomenon of such arranged marriages reveals both expected clashes and unanticipated consonance of cultures to eventually stress a balance and harmony between tradition and modernity, East and West.
It was the “search for love in the day and age of Tinder” that truly attracted Kapur to Khan’s writing than multiculturalism. “What you're looking for is intimacy, you're looking for love. The time that you were born, and your mother held you was the most intimate moment of your life and, from then on, you're searching for such a moment.  I've never seen a film or a script about arranged marriage from this point of view,” says Kapur. According to him, it’s these very ideas and values that make the film universal in its appeal. “It doesn’t isolate [itself from] any country or culture,” he says.

Shabana Azmi who plays the key role of Aisha, Kazim’s mother was moved by the inclusive and empathetic take of the film, rather than resorting to a mocking or judgmental treatment. “At a time when the world is becoming so divisive, and everything is so full of strife, comes a film that celebrates love, and says let's not sit in judgment on each other's culture. And I think celebrating differences is very important,” she says. Jeff Mirza, who plays her husband, Zahid, liked the fact that it isn’t a “saviour movie”. “The West is not coming and saving South Asia or vice versa,” he says.

Azmi, who comes from a progressive family, had always found the idea of arranged marriage completely alien. But she accepts that it has also worked well for some people. “It’s essentially the same thing as Tinder. You’re trying to meet [people]. Or your parents are helping you with it, just like the app,” she says. But she thinks the very idea of marriage is also being resisted these days, especially by the girls. “It comes from the fact that there has been a shift in the man-woman relationship. The woman is much more confident and knows what her rights are. She’s demanding them but the men have yet to change,” she says.

Khan says that almost every single character in the film harks back to someone she’d have met for real. “I would say that pretty much all the anecdotes and a lot of the lines come from real experiences. But having said that, I went to Pakistan when I was 21 and Zoe, the character Lily plays, is in her 30s. So, we are not the same but there are lots of my life experiences that come through in the script inevitably,” she says.

Kapur was born in Lahore and had been there a few times, especially while collaborating with the icon Nusrat Fateh Ali on Bandit Queen. For him capturing the visual or emotional details of Khan’s script was not difficult. “The culture, the way we do weddings [in India] is the same. There's not that much difference so I could relate to it completely,” he says. 

Khan thinks that it is to Kapur’s credit for having made the film more moving than what she had originally written. “He makes you care for the story and gets you emotionally invested. The kind of films I like to watch are the ones that make me laugh and cry,” she says. 

For Kapur life itself is an emotional journey. “If it were an unemotional journey, we'd all be dead. If there was no mystery or uncertainty in life, there would be no life. Emotion, mystery, yearning—that’s what life is all about. How could you be an artist and not be emotional?” he asks rhetorically. 

As a writer, Khan found this collaborative aspect of filmmaking the most fascinating. “What you set out to do evolves so much from your original vision. It's such a massive collaboration of so many different visions. It becomes something completely different, takes on a life of its own, in a brilliantly positive way, which I think I probably hadn't fully understood when I was writing the script,” she says. 

So, would we get more scripts from her? “I have produced lots of things, mainly documentaries, but writing gives me the greatest satisfaction. However, it's also the thing that I find by far the hardest,” she says. 

What’s Love… has an exciting ensemble cast, especially the women. Veterans Emma Thompson (who plays Zoe’s mother Cath) and Shabana Azmi giving company to young Lily James and Sajal Aly. For Aly it was a dream to work with legends like Thompson, Azmi and Kapur. She calls it “dil ka taalluk” (relationship of the heart) and loves the fact that Kapur doesn’t give actors too many instructions. “He just tells you what to do and what not to. He does not make you feel embarrassed in front of people [if you do something wrong],” says Aly. 

Azmi, who not only played a key role in Kapur’s feature debut Masoom(1983) but also acted with him in films like Toote Khilone(1978) thinks that the director has always been very gentle with his actors. “He is a very loving, fine director because he doesn't tell his actors what to do. But he creates the space to let them give their best,” she says, adding the reason why it was easy for her to work with him again, despite not having been in touch for long, “We immediately connected in a way where I felt we're on the same side, which was lovely.” 

Mirza agrees, “He lets the actor come out in their true form. He has his own vision and doesn't compromise on it, but he allows you to wiggle room to do what you need to do. And it's all done in a very gentle way though he has an eye on the bigger picture.”

Azmi laughs aloud about playing a Pakistani mother in several recent projects, “It’s as though there are only Pakistani mothers in London, no Indian ones”. But she finds it a heart-warming experience “to learn to embrace your age rather than fight it and then play the character in that spirit. It's a fortunate time because the films are opening to older people and particularly to women which were unimaginable 10 years ago."

In 1988 Azmi worked with an icon like Shirley MacLaine, in John's Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka and now she appears to be having a lot of fun in the company of Emma Thompson in What’s Love… But she thinks there is a key difference. Back then she was the only Asian on the set. “I felt a bit alien because everything else was just white, British. Today it's becoming so international. On the same set, you have black, white, Chinese, Polish, Asian, and more females. It's changing completely,” she says.

She is also thrilled about the diversity of roles she is being offered.“ Playing Admiral Margaret Parangosky [in Steven Spielberg-backed series Halo], working with Emma Thompson, working with Karan Johar [in Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani]. How much more diverse can it get? So, it's a good time,” she signs off.

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