Director Shekhar Kapur returns to the big screen with feel-good romcom What’s Love Got To Do With It?
He kindly took some out from his busy schedule to chat to Glam about this new project.
What was it about the story that enticed him into making it?
“I was fascinated by the character of Zoe (Lily James) and a girl that is addicted to Tinder. Now, when I was 18 in London we were doing the same things with dating, but it’s the idea that if you’ve got nothing to do, you can just pick up the phone and go on Tinder and get yourself a date. ‘What are you looking for?’ was my inspiration. Young people are so full of anxiety these days, particularly those in their mid-20s, and that anxiety sometimes gets fulfilled by going onto Tinder and saying, ‘Oh maybe that’s the way out’. I was desperate to look into that mindset. So for me, the whole film was Zoe’s point of view. The first time I met Lily James, she said, ‘What do you think?’ and the image I get is Zoe in a tumble dryer and she doesn’t know how to get out.”
We discussed Tinder (mostly my experience!), modern attitudes to dating and whether there’s something to learn from a different approach.
“That is interesting because everybody I know, in India and not just the West, is on Tinder. The funny thing is that nobody’s embarrassed to say that anymore. We have changed. To me, what it does is it gives women more power. I was there when the pill first came and it sort of freed women from pregnancy. That was the first sense of owning your own power over your own sexuality. So it’s a huge movement, a feminist movement actually. That’s a fundamental thing that we’ve adapted to.”
Ideas of “walking into love” and “simmer-to-boil” rather than falling in love are key metaphors throughout the film. I wondered how Shekhar approached these ideas.
“Well, I was part of that generation that actually said, ‘Oh my God, if you don’t have sex before marriage, how do we know sex will work?’ I mean I was terrified by the idea of spending the night with someone I didn’t really know and it not working out. And for the rest of my life, I’d remember that one night. So when Zoe asks, ‘How do you know the sex will work after marriage if you don’t try it before?’, that was me at 18 years old. My parents didn’t have sex before marriage – at least that’s what they told me – and it’s like that in many arranged marriages. I will say the concept of arranged marriage is just a system that has developed in the East because we used to living in large, joint families. Still, in the West or anywhere, there are always aunts that are going around trying to get their nephews married, or similar. Every nation, every culture, has a system to matchmake the young people.”
The story follows filmmaker Zoe as she documents her childhood friend Kaz (Shazad Latif), who foregoes conventional dating for an arranged or “assisted” marriage, chosen by his parents. Although this is an alien concept in Western cultures, Shekhar muses how different Western ideas of dating really are.
“If you open the Times of India, there are three pages of matrimonial ads. I want this, that and this kind of person. How different is that from flicking through Tinder? It’s the same thing, right?”
The film celebrates South Asian culture with many bright and joyful scenes, particularly the wedding in Lahore. Shekhar explains his intention behind those parts.
“I had a wedding just like in the film. 5000 people turned up and I thought only five would! It can be one of the most political events in our lives. Something I wanted to do was show that although the wedding is joyful and colourful, Kaz has these family politics going on at the same time. These political things within something so traditional. Young people always find a way to express themselves both within and beyond that tradition. So what I really wanted to do was to show the realities of that.”
The script was written by Jemima Khan and contains many laugh-out-loud and touching moments. Collaborating with her must have been a big factor for you?
“Oh it was. It was her story that she’d worked on for 10 years before it was brought to me. What I loved about the script is it’s not definitive what love is, it’s still a question. That’s what I believe love is at the end of the day, it is just yearning. And as long as we yearn, we’re in love. It’s always a mystery, something we constantly aspire to. If you say ‘Oh I’ve fallen in love, that’s that’, then you might as well not be in love then as love should remain a mystery. But I also liked that Jemima wrote about forgiveness. So I really loved all of these ideas in the script, and then it became my job to put them into a coherent film.”
As well as comedy, the film deals with some difficult topics and has real emotional pull. I asked Shekhar if it was challenging to balance the different genres.
“Well, the most challenging thing was to keep on nodding my head to everybody saying ‘Don’t forget it’s a romcom!’ You can call it whatever you like, right, but the difference between this film and every other romcom that I’ve seen, as in so-called genre romcoms, is that the people are real. The characters are not caricatures but real people, they’re people I’ve seen behaving like that. And that came from months of rehearsal with the actors where they found each character within themselves.”
I asked Shekhar if modern dating culture has changed what the audience is willing to accept in romcoms.
“I think so. Even with many excellent romcoms in the past you accepted that what you saw were particular caricatures of characters. Some are relatable, but they’re always caricatures. With a romcom you would just rehearse the punchlines, but that’s not what we did. We came into character with ourselves and that’s where the emotion came from, the idea that actually these are real characters we’re dealing with.”
On this point, I noted that a strength of the film is how everything feels organic, not just the characters but the way the story unfolds is believable rather than in a derivative way as with many romcoms.
“Indeed, there has to be a mystery, romance has to be mysterious. Stories and uncertainty drive our lives, because there will be no love without the uncertainty of love. A typical romcom will just make you feel ‘Okay, that’s it’. You know, the plane is taking off, the guy runs after it at the last moment and you think she’s gone but actually she’s there waiting for him. Everything’s fine, hunky dory? No, that’s where love starts.”
Finally, Shekhar explained what people should take from the film.
“I think we’ve now come to a point where, especially after the pandemic and you’re dealing with a film like this, you want to come out and see something real and not something dark. Unfortunately, in cinema, reality has come to mean darkness. So why can’t we do reality as a sense of feel good? Why can’t I have a feel-good film, with real people with real emotions? Because that happens too.”
What’s Love Got To Do With It? is currently showing in cinemas.
Interview by Jack Seaton