Arranged marriage is a tried-and-true trope in Bollywood romcoms, which typically champion love and social progress over tradition, even if they’ve hardly moved the needle for decades despite the genre’s immense popularity. Though set in London and revolving around arranged marriage in the South Asian diaspora, it’s easy to make assumptions about Toronto Film Festival premiere “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” based on genre conventions and cliché.
But this is most definitely not what Bollywood romcom enthusiasts might expect. For starters, the story concerns overseas Pakistanis and not Indians. The film also doesn’t outright frame arranged marriage as something outdated and stifling. If anything, it encourages viewers to not rush to judgment.
Moreover, its protagonist is actually a white woman. Zoe (Lily James), is a socially conscious documentary filmmaker from an ethnically diverse part of London. Her mother, Cath (Emma Thompson), while fully embracing the multiculturalism around her, is prone to the occasional faux pas due to a lack of awareness and sensitivity.
The producers Zoe tries to entice to back a project on children in the care system are averse to downer stories, so she pitches one on arranged marriage, as her next-door neighbor and childhood friend Kaz (Shazad Latif, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) is preparing to embark on this journey. It immediately clicks with the suits: “My Big Fat Arranged Marriage!” “Love Contractually!” Sold!
Kaz is the archetypal catch for a modern romcom, devilishly handsome and an MD to boot. Zoe is somewhat dumbfounded by his enthusiasm for matchmaking, an avidity stemming from successful precedents in his Pakistani family. Then again, it’s not as if she’s had much luck with dating apps. Cath tries to fix Zoe up with her vet, James (Oliver Chris), a set-up which Zoe realizes is conceptually not far from an arranged marriage. Though James doesn’t excite her nearly as much as her previous failed suitors, she decides to give him a shot because whatever she’s been doing hasn’t worked.
As Zoe spends more time trailing Kaz for her film project, the chemistry between them becomes undeniable — to us viewers anyway. But she must sit through Kaz and family’s meeting with Mo the Matchmaker (Asim Chaudhry, “Wonder Woman 1984”), a Muslim singles mixer, and his Skype meeting with Maymouna (Sajal Ali), a beautiful yet visibly hesitant young law student in Pakistan. The story eventually shifts to Pakistan for the wedding.
It’s maddening that this is director Shekhar Kapur’s first feature since 2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” This is a feast for the eyes, and it’s exciting to see him apply this rich visual tapestry to a modern setting. The film challenges any preconceived notions of what Pakistan looks and feels like: The shots of Lahore exteriors by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s second unit are dreamy and fairytale-like. The interiors, shot by Remi Adefarasin (“Locked Down”) in Suffolk, are simply breathtaking.
A crowded bazaar that may appear chaotic and overwhelming on, say, “The Amazing Race,” in this film seems like the most romantic place in the world, where time stands still — all with a little trickery on the depth of field in the shots. Maymouna and Kaz’s wedding has got to be one of the most stunning ever staged; whether or not these nuptials are factually accurate, production designer Simon Elliott and costume designer Caroline McCall do a sublime job transporting us.
Jemima Khan’s screenplay employs a storybook motif that Kapur realizes in his direction. Whenever Zoe babysits on her friend’s date nights and reads bedtime stories, she recounts in voiceover her own romantic misadventures and the frogs she has kissed, using story-time vernacular. It’s a nice narrative device but also an observant commentary on how these fables from our childhood may leave a lasting impression that informs unrealistic expectations on love.
The screenplay feels fresh and original, even if parts of it are inevitable. This is escapism, after all, not a lecture. One facet that particularly stands out is the film’s treatment of Kaz’s sister, Sumaira (Taj Atwal, “Memory”), who has been cast out by the family because she married for love. This subplot gives the film its emotional heft. It seems sincere and beautiful, far from the manipulations, the posturing and the virtue signaling sometimes seen in so many other romcoms about arranged marriage.
James and Latif make a splendid pair. They don’t need to utter a single word to express their affection for each other — and for the most part, they don’t — but we can still tell from the acting alone that they can barely conceal those feelings. Seeing them together makes one giddy, a feat that even Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan couldn’t manage. Thompson is fantastic as one would expect, scene stealing even during the requisite dance number.
The romcom appears to be making its way back, after years of remission, into the popular discourse. “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” happens to be the best one Working Title has ever produced. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” was a classic, but it didn’t look this spectacular. Everything about this one is lovely and magical, but it’s also deeply heartfelt.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It?” made its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.