TIFF 2022: Forget Proper Representation WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT Is Barely A Proper Rom-Com
What’s Love Got To Do With It is a brand new feature film showcasing the cultural differences between South Asian and Western society. On paper, the idea is pretty cringey given that the formula was more or less exhausted in the early 2000s. The film is from renowned Indian director Shekhar Kapur. Never having tackled an all-out romance, I was keenly interested in how Kapur handles a modern-day intercultural love story. To say it was a disappointment is an understatement. But What’s Love Got To Do With It brings up an interesting discourse, while still getting much of it wrong. Not even from a cultural perspective, but from a storytelling viewpoint. The movie showcases just how much of a disconnect there is still, even in 2022, of Muslim, (or South Asian in a broader sense) representation in Western Media.
Warning: While I usually try to do spoiler-free reviews of movies, I will need to disclose spoilers for What’s Love Got To Do With It, to properly have this conversation.
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What’s Love Got To Do With It: What Is It All About?
Starring Shazad Latif and Lily James, What’s Love Got To Do With It is a new rom-com that dives into the concept of arranged marriages. Screenwriter Jemima Khan does this with a unique framing device through Zoe (James), who is a documentary filmmaker. Hearing about her Pakistani Muslim neighbour and best friend Kaz’s (Latif) decision to do an arranged marriage, she unexpectedly pitches the idea to her bosses as a documentary. So Zoe will document Kaz’s journey of getting arranged married, for a new documentary.
However, the movie doesn’t really even do a good job with this documentary plot device. Zoe haphazardly walks around with her camera pointed in every which direction. She barely frames a subject properly and will point the camera away when reacting to an answer to a question she asked for the documentary. Even when she does a talking head interview, she barely asks any questions and then loses focus by the questions she does ask. It almost felt like the filmmaker just didn’t want to commit to the bit.
But I digress…
The Muslim Representation Of What’s Love Got To Do With It
The majority of my issues with the representation of Muslims and the larger South Asian culture in this movie, comes from the depiction of the male protagonist, Kaz a.k.a. Kazim. When Kaz first appears on-screen, he almost instantly announces his decision of going with an arranged marriage.
Throughout the rest of the film, we only hear about how modern and progressive he is, mostly from Zoe. While Kaz’s actions throughout the film actually point to the contrary. Kaz spends most of the movie either behaving in a typical conservative male chauvinist way or allowing others around him to behave in the same way.
Firstly, the movie never truly explains why Kaz wants this type of an arranged marriage. We’re told he’s good-looking, modern, has a great job, etc… but there’s zero explanation of Kaz’s motivation. Beyond a third act emotional moment of ‘wanting to be a good son’. Ok? Sure. In contrast to a more recent Indian rom-com set in Western society, Netflix’s Wedding Season, which actually develops its characters with their reasonings.
So Many Typical Cliched Ideas Somehow Masquerading As ‘Progressive’?
The first red flag appears when Kaz and his parents visit an arranged marriage service. What follows, intended to be a comedy, is some of the most disgusting, outdated and cringe-worthy bits I’ve seen in a while. What’s meant to be funny, comes off as gross. Comments about skin colour, casteism, a woman’s ambitions, clothes, etc, feel like something out of a Russel Peters stand-up from circa 2007.
Usually, this kind of comedy works if you have a character in the scene, as outraged by the comments as the audience. But Kaz, incidentally, just shrugs it off as if it’s no big thing. He seems complicit in his parents’ outdated way of thinking, something that continues throughout the movie.
Reality Of Muslim Or South Asian Culture Without Context
The red flags with Kaz continue throughout the movie. When he eventually meets his intended bride, he almost seemingly ignores any potential issues from her end. When Maymouna (Sajal Ali) first appears to speak with Kaz over Zoom, she clearly looks distressed. An awkward conversation ensues where she answers in one-word replies, while Kaz, apparently oblivious, goes off about a childhood memory of his own. And it’s not that the characters aren’t aware of troubling elements of forced marriages or honor killings; Zoe mentions it as a documentary pitch earlier on. But Kaz or his family, I guess, doesn’t care to vet those issues in a prospective bride.
Eventually, it’s revealed that Maymouna does have a boyfriend and her parents actually forced her to marry Kaz. A third act twist that the entire audience could see coming, from when Maymouna appears on Zoom, all teary eyed and troubled. But Kaz is shocked! Even worse, there is another revelation about how the ideal Muslim girl was all an act, and Maymouna is rather more of a modern-day woman who smokes and drinks and parties. All totally normal things.
But Kaz has zero reaction to this. Keeping in mind that Kaz is supposedly a practising Muslim. Who, somehow, has no cares that his future bride and recently engaged fiancee completely deceived him about who she was and that his engagement party just became an alcohol and marijuana fuelled rager.
Where Cultural Differences Matter More Than Character Development
Forget the cultural differences, but if a similar plot point happened in an all-White rom-com from Netflix, you bet your Kurti there would be a scene with the characters addressing or discussing it. But nope. Apparently, when confronted with the fact that his bride doesn’t fit all those archaic criteria they spouted to the matchmaker earlier, it seems Kaz doesn’t care.
Now, let’s clarify. There is absolutely no problems with Maymouna drinking or smoking. I was actually glad to see that Maymouna ended up being a properly developed character, instead of a cliched Muslim bride. And I thought there would be some sort of interaction between her and Kaz post the engagement-rager, thinking the movie would take that opportunity to provide more nuance to this whole arranged marriage premise. But nope! Kaz behaves as if this kind of deception is just part of the arranged marriage process. Which it absolutely shouldn’t be?
Yes, there are Muslims who don’t necessarily believe or practise their faith. Or pick and choose their beliefs based on their own internalized sense of ethics and morality. And no, that doesn’t make them bad people. But What’s Love Got To Do With It doesn’t seem interested in that nuance.
What’s Love Got To Do With It Leads Have Zero Chemistry
What’s Love Got To Do With It Also fails as a basic rom-com. Despite being amazing actors in their own right, Latif and James have zero chemistry with one another. Their love story also has no setup, besides maybe 3 scenes of Zoe questioning Kaz’s choice to get arranged marriage. They have no moments, no lingering looks, and their pre-existing history even prevented the movie from doing a proper meet-cute.
The eventual kiss in the climax is, quite possibly, one of the most unintentionally awkward moments I’ve ever seen on screen.
Women Demonized For The Sake Of The Story
One positive aspect of What’s Love Got To Do With It, is how director Kapur and the screenwriter portray Zoe as a very sex-positive character. Zoe is independent, and ambitious, has her own life and even hooks up with guys throughout the movie. But at the same time, the movie undercuts the positives of those scenes, with some tragedy and bitterness.
Zoe unintentionally ends up going home with a married man at one point. It’s as if those moments are for Zoe to need an outlet for the stress in her life, instead of just having a regular sex life. It’s filled with regret, sorrow and at one point, settling for someone she’s not attracted to. It’s weird, but the movie’s almost saying that her lifestyle choices are wrong. Well, not almost, as Kaz himself says this out loud to her in a moment of confrontation.
It’s A Weird Movie That Gets A Lot Wrong
What’s Love Got To Do With It tries to create a movie about the cultural divide between Western and Pakistani Mulsim culture in a way that feels forced and unrealistic. Characters explain things out loud that they definitely don’t need to. They ignore basic common sense, and chalk it up to ‘cultural differences when that’s not at all the case.
Kaz’s parents, played by Jeff Mirza and Shabana Azmi, are absolute caricatures. They are one-liner-spouting one-dimensional characters who say the typically narrow-minded things you expect, which just aren’t funny or believable in 2022. Keeping in mind that this is also the year that we got one of the best representations of Muslims in America, in Marvel Studios’ Ms. Marvel.
That show also featured an inter-faith relationship in Ms. Marvel’s brother Amir, marrying a formerly Christian Black woman, Tyesha, who converted to Islam. None of this background is in the show itself, despite audiences obviously seeing it represented on screen. And yet, What’s Love Got To Do With It still has White characters referring to Pakistani Muslims as ‘exotic’.
Emma Thompson Is In A Totally Different Movie
Even the best thing about What’s Love Got To Do With It, Emma Thompson, playing Zoe’s mom, is oddly out of place. While Thompson’s performance gets most of the laughs of the whole movie, it’s still troubling. The character constantly is wowed by the ‘exotic-ness’ of her, apparently decades-long neighbours. She is constantly stunned and amazed at their culture and traditions.
You would think that if she’s been a part of their lives for all these years, it would just be an accepted thing. But nope. Thompson spends most of the movie wow’ing and ooh’ing at all the cultural events she’s invited to. Almost behaving as if it’s a novelty being around Brown people.
It’s weird and off-putting, through no fault of the actor. It’s the kind of jokes you expect and forgave in movies like Bend It Like Beckham in 2002.
At the end of it all, What’s Love Got To Do With It has very few saving graces. The humour comes from the usual making fun of the differences in culture that one expects from a movie like this. There are absolutely no sweet or light-hearted moments between the lead couple in this, apparent romantic comedy.
There are amazing parallels between Kaz’s arranged marriage and Zoe’s mom continuously trying to set her up, that the movie doesn’t even acknowledge. What a wasted opportunity of actually trying to find universal similarities between the two cultures, to find common ground, that the movie doesn’t seem interested in.
It’s easier to tell a story about how different everyone is, using surface-level jokes and an approach that better filmmakers have already done 20 years ago.
What’s Love Got To Do With It Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2022.