‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ Director Shekhar Kapur, Writer Jemima Khan Discuss Politics, Culture, Climate Change

“When I was invited to the Red Sea Film Festival, I saw it as a big opportunity,” says Oscar-nominated director Shekhar Kapur (“Elizabeth,” “Bandit Queen”) of his romantic comedy “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” opening the sophomore edition of the Red Sea Film Festival.

“For all the politics, and let’s leave that aside, I think this region is becoming more and more important. I think the resources this region can put into a festival can make it a really important event, and we need an important festival that comes from this region, something that can go out and compete with the big Western film festivals. We need other narratives, so I love the idea of being here.”

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Jemima Khan, who wrote the script about a documentarian (played by Lily James) following her friend’s arranged marriage process, adds: “Art and culture have the capacity of bringing people together. I know we’re saying politics aside, but, equally, I think it’s really important not to forget that, just five years ago, cinemagoing was illegal in this country, women couldn’t drive, and here we are, celebrating women in film.

“This is a film that has very powerful female leads – which is Shekah’s speciality – and it’s about multiculturalism, tolerance and love. I think it’s very important to take that message around the world and be willing to be open with people.”

Shazad Latif and Lily James in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
Shazad Latif and Lily James in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”

Kapur adds: “When I first read Jemima’s script, even though it was a Pakistani family, it felt exactly the same as in Indian families, Arab families, Chinese families. I know Jewish mothers in New York who are just like the mother in this film. It’s such an international idea about family, marriage and intimacy. What she has written is a gift to the world.”

Khan, who was famously married to Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, drew inspiration from her own experiences as a British woman navigating Pakistani culture to write her first script. Diving into the vulnerability of the personal, however, was not her biggest challenge.

“Learning how to write a script took some time. It’s about what you leave out, not what you include. Scriptwriting is all about deletion, tearing it down until everything means something. That’s very hard for a writer to do, you need other people to help with that process.”

Kapur says of the collaborative process between the two: “I have to understand why she walked through those doors, then each actor has to walk through those doors as an interpretation. I am very jealous of all my actors, I fall in love with all of them, and if anybody else comes into the process I get upset, but you have to let other people in.

“If two highly creative people always agree, one of them is lying. Creative collaborations are conflicting collaborations and creativity arises from conflict. If we agreed on everything, then the film would be flat. There’s a script, there’s a director and each actor interprets it in a different way. All these interpretations are what the audience gets.”

Emma Thompson Lily James What's Love Got to Do with It?
Emma Thompson, Lily James in “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”

Kapur emphasized the importance of promoting non-Western culture when introducing the film during the festival’s opening night (“For so far, the winds have come from the West and the East,” he said). The filmmaker similarly opened his introduction for the film’s world premiere at Toronto Film Festival by taking a firm political stance, highlighting the critical ripples of climate change when referring to recent floods in Pakistan.

“I think it’s becoming more and more important every day,” he says when asked about how important it is for him to use his platform to raise awareness about political issues close to his heart.

“I think filmmakers have a responsibility bigger than ever before. Look at COP27! Someone should say it… Nothing happened! It’s really important for filmmakers to give whatever we have – our craft, our abilities, our resources and our creativity – to bring the right questions out. We have a gift, we are privileged; people listen to us, we are privileged; people give us money to make films, we are privileged; our films are released theatrically, we are privileged. Privilege brings responsibility. If we are not responsible about our privileges, we will have misused life.”

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