What's Love Got to Do With It?: Jemima Khan's cross-cultural rom-com is proof romance isn't dead
When I first caught up with Jemima Goldsmith nee Khan, at a screening for her film debut, What’s Love Got To Do With It? – the highly anticipated cross-cultural rom-com which hits the screens this week – I had to squeeze past a gaggle of young hijab-clad fangirls flocking around her taking selfies and squealing before uploading on to Instagram. It is not often that the writer of a film seems to have a bigger fan base than the stars.
Many of them are too young to remember when Jemima stepped out of the Tatler society pages and onto the front pages of national newspapers around the world when she married Imran Khan, the Pakistani ex-cricketer turned politician.
"I saw and was part of the conversation around new arranged marriages and I watched them play out. A lot of those marriages were very happy and romantic and they really confounded my expectation"
It was a surprising move for Jemima – whose father was billionaire financier, James Goldsmith and mother, Lady Annabel the daughter of the 8th Marquess of Londonderry – as she swapped life in the highest echelons of London high society to live in an extended family set up in Pakistan, albeit within the wealthy upper-class clan of the Khans.
Problematic politics put firmly aside, the pair made a striking couple and showed the world a side of Pakistan that we rarely saw in the West – glamourous and classy.
After her marriage ended, Jemima maintained an affinity with Pakistan, one that has come to life on the big screen with What’s Love Got To Do With It?
After building up an impressive CV as a producer and film-maker, with credits such as the Emmy award-nominated drama Impeachment, Jemima turned her hand to writing in this smart, nuanced story of love and (arranged) marriage.
The film tells the story of Zoe, played by actress of the moment Lily James. Zoe is a talented documentary maker frustrated with sexism in the industry as well as her Bridget Jones love life, thanks to her habit of swiping right on a series of Mr Wrongs.
When her childhood best mate Kaz (Shazad Latif) announces he is going to Pakistan to have an arranged marriage, or as he calls ‘an assisted marriage’, she convinces him to let her make a documentary about his trip. She, however, ends up going on her own journey of self-discovery, while realising that just because somebody may seem right for you on paper, sometimes life has other plans.
Talking more about the film, Jemima says that the film was inspired by her time in Pakistan when she got to see arranged marriage system for herself.
“I lived in a pretty conservative household in Pakistan for ten years from the ages of 20 to 30," she tells The New Arab. "My ex-husband’s family are Pathan and ours was the only non-arranged marriage in the history of their family pretty much. When I first went there I definitely had the same unnuanced view of what an arranged marriage represents," she adds.
Living with an extended family is quite a cultural norm in Pakistan, even in modern family dynamics.
"I lived with my ex-husband's sisters, their husbands, their children, his father – there were quite a few of us living in that house," she explains. "All of them had arranged marriages, so I got to see those relationships up close.
“I saw how long-term arranged marriages worked, and also I saw and was part of the conversation around new arranged marriages – I watched them play out. A lot of those marriages were very happy and very romantic. They really confounded my expectation," she adds.
“I really reject the idea that arranged marriage is a bad thing," Jemima continues. "We always see on our screens the dynamic that arranged marriage is bad and love marriage is good, and I think that there is a more interesting conversation to be had around both types of approaches to dating – whether that be the dating app approach or the more traditional arranged marriage approach.”
After returning from Pakistan, Jemima said she started thinking about the different ways cultures approach love and marriage and whether there is something to be learnt.
“I came back from Pakistan and had this conversation with my girlfriends here who were in their 30s, wanting to have kids, wanting to either get married or settle down and we would have this conversation if your parents helped you find someone if you had an arranged marriage, who would your parents suggest? Would it work?
"That was kind of the idea of the film originally, what if someone like us who is not from an Asian background saw what I’ve seen in Pakistan, has seen it work, has made some mistakes of her own along the way and has kind of lost faith in their own judgement, so is now going to delegate it to their mother – that’s the genesis of the film."
The film is very much a love letter to Pakistan which Jemima describes as her ‘crazy friend’ and the setting is as much a part of the story as the characters.
“I wanted to show a more colourful, joyful, hospitable, fun Pakistan because that exists too,” she said, her affection for the country.
"The film is very much a love letter to Pakistan which she describes as her ‘crazy friend’ and the setting is as much a part of the story as the characters"
In a post-9/11 world, it is ironic that a film which portrays Pakistan and Muslim culture in a positive light, would be considered daring and subversive, but such is the world today. “Trying to show a mainstream rom-com with Muslims and show that side of Pakistan was a challenge," Jemima says.
The film is more than just a rom-com as it holds a mirror to our own attitudes with sharp observations about both Eastern and Western culture.
Much of this is through Zoe’s mum Cath, played by a show-stealing Emma Thompson, whose desi dance skills and typical 'aunty jee' habit of putting her foot in her mouth will have the audience laughing and cringing at the same time.
While her ‘unconscious bias’ is a source of much of the film’s comedy, some critics have described her character as deeply problematic. However, Jemima explains, that is the whole point.
“That was very intentional because I think that we all know a Cath who isn’t outwardly offensive or racist but says things which are really problematic and maybe even hurtful. But she is someone who also really reveres her neighbours, feels a great affection for them and is generally a good-hearted person,” said Jemima.
“Often there is so much condemnation for mistakes where there is no malice attached and I think there is a difference. I am very much a 'both things are true' person," she continues.
"I am very against the polarization of everything – that you have to choose a position. You have to either be pro-this or anti that. I think very often both things can be true, so I was interested in exploring this – that we could feel warmth and affection towards a character, but we could also find things that she says really problematic.”
The idea of both things being true at the same time is one that permeates the film.
Ultimately the film tells its story from the boundary between both cultures, which in a way is a good description of Jemima herself.
Alia Waheed is a freelance journalist specialising in issues affecting Asian women in the UK and the Indian subcontinent.
Follow her on Twitter: @AliaWaheed