For Shekhar Kapur and Shabana Azmi, collaborators on What’s Love Got To Do With It?, it’s all about spreading that warm and fuzzy but often misunderstood feeling of love
(From left) Lily James, Jeff Mirza, Shabana Azmi, Shekhar Kapur, Asim Chaudhry and Jemima Khan of What’s Love Got to Do With It? photographed in Toronto this September. Pic/Getty Images
When screenwriter and television producer Jemima Khan (once Goldsmith) married then-retired cricketer Imran Khan in 1995, she didn’t know that it would inspire her to write a screenplay for a cross-cultural romantic comedy set in London and Lahore, 27 years later.
The film has taken shape, with Shekhar Kapur at the helm. Known fondly for the Bollywood hit Mr India (1987), and acclaimed for biographial period drama Elizabeth (1998), Kapur has directed stalwarts Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi as part of the film’s British-Indian cast. It almost seems meta.
He tells mid-day over a phone call from Dubai before he sets off for a run on the beach, that although the plot was inspired by Jemima’s wedding in Lahore to the now politician and former Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran, for Kapur, it could have been set for all he cares in Shanghai, and it would still be the same. “Jemima had the plot all ready, and it was Working Title Films (British film studio), who worked with me on Elizabeth, that saw it through. I had been thinking about the subjects of love and intimacy for a while, so it [this story] struck a chord. When I was making Elizabeth, it was Indira Gandhi, a woman who had to constantly deny her feminine nature to be seen as effective leader, that I was thinking of. What I mean is that, this story could have been set in Shanghai, or Delhi, and I would have treated it from my own aesthetic vantage point. It’s about families and the search for love.”
Azmi says she struck a friendship with two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson, who didn’t display any of the starry airs you’d predictably associate with a critically acclaimed star
The film that deals with South Asian communities living in England, has a simple plot. A commitment-phobic Zoe (Lilly James) decides to document her best friend Kaz’s (Shazad Latif) journey toward an arranged marriage. The story that moves between London and Lahore, stars Thomson as James’ eccentric mother Cath and Azmi as Aisha, Kaz’s mother, who have been neighbours in London since the kids were young. In Lahore is when Zoe starts asking the all-important question—what does love have to do with it? “I thought the script had huge possibilities. As a director, I looked at what I could bring to it. What is intimacy? Love and intimacy are so misunderstood in the world. When we are born, we are intimate with our mothers. Then, as we grow older, intimacy is dictated by the [ideas propagated by] media. In the world of Tinder and casual sex, what are people looking for? I was fascinated by Lilly’s character. This girl represented that dilemma—what is modern love, and why is it so difficult to [find and hold on to]?”
For Mumbai-based veteran actor Azmi, the script worked because it carried humour and warmth. “That, plus working with Emma Thompson and Shekhar Kapur. It was an offer on a platter!” Azmi tells us. She last collaborated with the director on his debut, the 1983 Hindi film Masoom.
For Jemima, this film comes after the success of The Clinton Affair, which she produced in 2017 after meeting former White House intern Monica Lewinsky who had an affair with then US president Bill Clinton, at a Vanity Fair party. She then was a producer on the Golden Globes and Emmy nominated Impeachment, which Ryan Murphy made about the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal. About What’s Love..., Khan said in an interview that she believed arranged marriage was “a mad, outdated idea”, but she returned from Pakistan thinking differently, and saw its merits for injecting practicality into heady love. Kapur echoes her thoughts. “Searching for love is a never ending journey—and our idea of love evolves as we move on through life.” But Kapur desists from calling it a romantic comedy. “When I did Elizabeth, they called it a period drama. But to me, it felt like a modern film. If I define a movie, I end up confining it. Whatever the distributors choose to call it, I will say, it’s just me telling a story.”
For Azmi, this is one more international project to add to her kitty. She’s happy that things have come a long way since the time when they asked “dumb questions about India”. She adds, “When I first worked in Madame Sousatzka directed by John Schlesinger, I was the only Indian on set and a bit of an oddity. That no longer applies. In fact, you get a lot of people saying, ‘I’m dying to do a trip to India’.” For Azmi, the time spent on set was like being a “perpetual student and always learning”. “Emma [Thomson] comes absolutely prepared with her lines and then improvises on set. She makes an attempt to be warm and friendly with the cast and crew and doesn’t put on starry airs. I’ve always noticed that the bigger your status, the less you need to emphasise it... the respect comes automatically. We were shooting during the height of the pandemic in the UK, so, there were strict protocols to be followed. But the atmosphere on the set was relaxed and Emma and I struck a friendship that I hope will be long lasting. We spoke about the state of the world and our common concerns,” she says, adding, “I truly enjoyed working with Shekhar after so many years. He loves his actors and coaxes them to give what he wants. I never once felt like we were working together after such a long gap.” Kapur laughs at Azmi’s comment. “What she has misunderstood is that I coax the actors into giving what they want. [what I actually do] I help them find the story and character in themselves.”
About the movie which releases in India in February 2023, Azmi says, summing it up: “It’s a film about love—a warm, lovely film which, judging by the public reactions to the screenings, will be immensely liked.”