Review: What’s Love Got to Do With It? is a cute rom-com with a distinctly Pakistani flavour that warms the heart
“Who isn’t on dating apps these days?” asks Lily James’ character Zoe, and really, who isn’t? The online dating world has evolved eons beyond Tinder or Muzz. From niche and bespoke apps to the everyday Twitter and Instagram DMs, the internet has become a firm mainstay of how we find love nowadays. But could being presented with seemingly infinite choices be overwhelming? Even dehumanising? And could taking a polar opposite approach be the answer?
These questions largely drive the explorative plot of What’s Love Got To Do With It? when London-based doctor Kazim Khan (known affectionately as Kaz and played by British-Pakistani actor Shazad Latif of Spooks and Toast of London fame) announces he’s asked his parents to begin the rishta process to find a “suitable” wife for him.
On the other hand, Zoe — a young, successful award-winning documentary filmmaker — is stuck in a rut of constant rejection in both her professional and personal life. In a last-ditch effort, she convinces her neighbour and childhood friend Kaz to let her film his journey of finding a match and getting married for her latest film. Typical rom-com shenanigans ensue, with great on-screen chemistry between Lily James and Shazad Latif, sprinkled with snippets of docu-drama-inspired backstories from Kaz’s family and a grand wedding set in romantic old Lahore.
Despite this contrasting backdrop of the pain of modern love on dating apps and turning to traditional arranged (“assisted!”) marriage for answers, at its heart, What’s Love Got To Do With It? is a highly-watchable cute rom-com with a distinctly Pakistani flavour that warms the heart. With sharp, astute writing by Jemima Khan (who is also co-producer) and well directed by Shekhar Kapur, the film features a diverse British and Asian cast, including Shabana Azmi, Emma Thompson, Jeff Mirza, comedian Asim Chaudhry, and our very own Sajal Aly as Maymouna, Kaz’s fiancée, who’s all of 22 years old, finishing her law degree and has a budding career as a human rights lawyer on the side.
Visually, it feels disarmingly familiar to see Aly cast as Maymouna. She plays the archetypal role we are all too familiar with onscreen: the quiet, soft-spoken, well-mannered, unassuming young woman with waist-length hair pinned up inside a crisp dupatta who doesn’t feel safe to fully express herself. Except, it is Maymouna here playing this role, not Aly.
Last year, Aly said, “I love to play characters that have depth and define the narrative of a project and I think I am very fortunate that my character Maymouna in my international English-language debut What’s Love Got to Do With It? has also given me the same opportunity.” By the end credits, you realise she’s done just that; after all, it’s Maymouna who finally shows the bravery to take initiative and pivot the plot, even if it’s late.
Personally, I found Maymouna’s characterisation to be flat and one-dimensional throughout the film, and especially difficult to reconcile in light of her post-credit scene, but my fellow movie-goers disagreed and thought Aly portrayed Maymouna perfectly.
You see, we witness the rishta process entirely through the eyes of Kaz as he experiences it, jumping in with blind faith and cold resolve that somehow things will magically work themselves out just because they did for his parents, with no meaningful (for him) input from Maymouna’s side. As viewers, our hint is Zoe’s interpretation through her lens, which also has limitations that the film is self-aware about, because unlike the typical Pakistani screenplay, there are no asides or internal monologues here for the female counterpart, no flashbacks to a scene literally just before the cut; no melodramatic ear-piercing, wails as the “good girl” tears up. We discover too late, in the way you see a speeding train approaching, that all is not as it seems with Maymouna, and this thoroughly paralyses Kaz. For this reason, Maymouna’s actions drive the ending home.
Whether Pakistani viewers can relate to this film will be interesting to gauge. Viewers in the diaspora — British Pakistanis in particular — will have lots to appreciate, from witty humour and familiar references to a treatment of big issues — racism, interracial marriage, Islamophobia, balancing religion and tradition with modernity, better known as the halal-haram ratio, unfaithfulness, and the overwhelming pressure to fit in and be ‘good enough’ — with compassion and insight.
For Pakistani viewers watching in Pakistan, what is likely to resonate is the difficulty of getting to know someone you could potentially be spending the rest of your life with over a video call in between vastly different time zones, a lagging internet connection, power outages and demanding schedules. As more and more young, eligible Pakistanis of marriageable age leave the country to settle overseas any way they can, stories of diverse, cross-cultural romances are only going to be more poignantly relevant. Khan’s screenplay captures well the gaping abyss within ourselves and our relationships that we hope to fill, and the soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney elevates every scene.
PS: Watch out for a qawwali cameo by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and stay in your seat for the post-credit scenes.
What’s Love Got To Do With It? first screened on September 10, at the Toronto International Film Festival and released on February 24, 2023 in the United Kingdom. It is currently in theatres in Pakistan.