What does Love have to do with it? makes a big representational error

What does Love have to do with it? spoilers follow.

On the surface, What does Love have to do with it? is a classic British rom-com with a cross-cultural twist.

The film stars Lily James as Zoe, a documentarian in need of a subject for her next project, and Sazad Latif as Kazim, her British Pakistani neighbor and close friend since childhood.

Kazim has decided he wants to settle down and find a wife, enlisting his parents to help him secure an assisted or arranged marriage. Intrigued by this process of finding a partner, Zoe convinces Kazim to be the subject of her next documentary, following him from London to Lahore in his search for a wife.

However, despite writer-producer Jemima Khan’s good intentions to demystify arranged marriage and love in South Asian culture, as well as a cast that includes acclaimed Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi and direction by Shekhar Kapur, the film attracts Western audience and rom-com tropes, failing to make any coherent commentary on the very issues it’s trying to address.

Lily James, What's Love Got To Do With It?


In one scene, Zoe and Kazim discuss his plans to find a wife. “What about love?” Zoe asks, a fair question from someone for whom assisted marriage is not a familiar concept. Kazim replies that “you love the person you’re with.”

Written as a more mundane character than her incredibly abusive mother, played by Emma Thompson, you’d expect Zoe to accept this answer – instead, she compares the situation to Stockholm Syndrome.

Zoe also introduces her documentary as “Love, Contractually” and describes Kazim’s experience as “married to a stranger, chosen by his parents”, a statement that is also reductive. and really wrong.

This is not to say that South Asian families do not put pressure on single people looking for a partner. Certain careers are valued over others, as well as castes, body types and skin colors – a reality show issue Indian matchstick clearly.

To counter this, the film makes a subtly pointed observation about colorism and the caste system while People just don’t do anythingAsim Chaudhry asks Kazim and his parents about their bridal preferences.

what does love have to do with


What is love… he clearly intends to show the colossal difference between forced and assisted marriages. Filled with scenes of happy couples sharing their own stories, whether assisted or ‘love’ marriages, it reinforces the message that assisted unions are not the harsh or confusing concept they are sometimes made out to be.

Therefore, Zoe’s comments throughout the film are contradictory. She repeatedly questions Kazim about his decision, referring to his future wife as a “stranger” whom she does not know. Kazim’s dialogue seems to serve as a tool to educate the Western public about assisted marriage.

The script tries to point out how modern and progressive this kind of engagement is actually, aptly comparing divorce procedures across cultures. However, while many may learn a thing or two, none of this is new information and South Asian viewers may well feel supported.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zoe and Kazim end up together at the end of the film, after Kazim’s short-lived marriage (to Sajal Aly’s Maymouna) comes to an amicable end. It’s what audiences have come to expect from the genre and it’s been obvious from the start.

However, there could have been a much stronger statement subverting so many of the stereotypes it plays on.

Take Maymouna, a shy, quiet girl in front of her family who turns into a rowdy party girl once she ties the knot. Couldn’t she have been a confident and shameless young woman whose family supported her ambitions instead of having to hide them?

sayal ali as magimuna what does love have to do with it

Photo: Robert Viglasky

The problem could lie in Khan’s underdog status. The writer-producer was married to retired cricketer and then-future Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, who lived in Pakistan for almost a decade.

Khan undoubtedly has first-hand experience of South Asian culture, and it’s clear she wanted to represent it lovingly in her screenwriting debut, but her perspective can never be lived experience.

It is interesting that Zoe’s doc ends up being rejected by her producers because they can’t argue that her work was done through a “white lens”. Is this a clear acknowledgment of Khan’s own privilege, or a preemptive defense of that very criticism? It’s hard to say.

What is love… it’s not completely useless. There are scenes that many South Asians will laugh at, recognizing their own family experiences on screen.

what does love have to do with


Khan also does an admirable job of tackling difficult subjects like shame culture and mixed marriages – a storyline involving Kazim’s sister Jamila is particularly well done. There are big Bollywood dance scenes, glitzy lehengas and aunties interfering, making this a fun watch, stylistically.

But with the caliber of South Asian faces both on screen and behind the screen, What does Love have to do with it? it had so much potential to shatter stereotypes.

Instead, the film plays on tired stories about South Asian experiences and leaves the white protagonist as the savior, as assisted marriages are a crazy idea. Unfortunately there’s not much to love here.

What does Love have to do with it? it’s in theaters now.

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