Jemima Khan is an absolute pleasure to speak with.
You might expect her to have airs and graces – what with her affluent upbringing, global recognition, successful media career, high-profile relationships, and proximity to royalty – but nothing could be further from the truth.
The Brit is about as delightful as they come.
Sitting in her London office, dressed in off-white and looking as lovely as always, the writer and producer joins me for a chat over Zoom. She is friendly, candid, and forthcoming, as we delve into the subject of our conversation: her work, primarily her new film, What‘s Love Got to Do with It?
The British romcom marks Jemima’s debut as a screenwriter, and takes a cross-cultural look at love through the lens of Lily James’s Zoe, a documentary filmmaker who follows her childhood friend, Kaz (Shazad Latif), as he opts to let his family arrange his marriage.
It’s a sweet, fun drama, driven by Jemima’s warm script that weaves Pakistani culture into the British tale. So what sparked the idea for the movie?
“It kind of started when I came back from Pakistan, having lived there for ten years,” she replies. “My friends were at the age that they were looking to settle down and have children and looking for suitable partners. Because I’d just come out of this ten years where it was completely normal for family to get involved in the choice of suitable partners, I would get overly involved and start saying, ‘ok let’s look at it like an arranged marriage’, and they were like, ‘wait, what are you talking about?!’,” she laughs.
Jemima’s understanding of the whole “arranged marriage” concept had evolved during her stay in Pakistan. When she first arrived here at age 20, she saw the tradition as an outdated idea that really had no place in the modern world. By the time she left a decade later, she could see that it actually worked quite well in some circumstances, particularly when it took the shape of what her former in-laws would call “assisted marriage” where it was essentially an introduction made by the people who love you most and know you best. “I started to see that as just as good an introduction system as a random algorithm on a dating app over here,” she says. “And so I started having this conversation with friends here, and then I started to think what would have happened if I had been in my 30s, hadn‘t had the backstory that I’ve had, I hadn’t been married with kids – what would happen if someone like me had had an arranged marriage in my early 30s? Who might my parents have chosen, and would it have worked out? And then I thought, well actually maybe that’s a premise for a film! Maybe we’ll have these neighbours who live together and the non-Pakistani family start off very sceptical but then it gets to the point where the non-British Pakistani character, who’s played by Lily James, turns to her mother and says, ‘alright, give it a go’. So that’s where it started.”
The film has now arrived in cinemas, 14 years after its idea first popped into the writer’s mind. It took her a decade to write the screenplay (not full-time, of course; she was fitting the project into a busy schedule that included running a production company, and also still learning the mechanics of writing a screenplay). She almost gave up several times along the way, thinking the project was never going to happen, but her persistence eventually paid off.
“When people are asking me what my next project is now, I’m like, well, you know, you’ll see it in 2040 probably. I mean it takes such a long time!”
Not only does it take long, but the process of making a movie involves a lot of people – from directors and editors to actors and musicians – each of whom leave their mark on the project. “I‘ve written probably a thousand different drafts of this,” she states, “because every single time a new person is attached to it, they give you notes, and then you rewrite it.”
That explains why the movie we have ended up with isn’t quite the film Jemima set out to make. “It’s a different project from the one that I embarked on,” she says. “There are so many different people involved in the making of a film that from start to finish, it’s a completely different thing. How I first imagined it is not how’s it’s turned out, for better and for worse. … There are definitely things where it achieved more than I hoped and things where it achieved less than I hoped.”
Some of the elements that changed along the way? “I started off with the Lily James character being a boy,” she reveals. And there were a few actors – including Rob Brydon – who never made it into the final cut, mainly because of the length of the movie. “There was another sibling in the film and their husband [as well],” she tells. “We cut them out because it was just too many different stories to follow. And nothing to do with them. They were brilliant. But you know it just sometimes happens.”
When it came to the cast, Jemima feels that her team were incredibly lucky. Every actor who ended up in the movie – from the leads to Shabana Azmi, Emma Tho-mpson, and Sajal Aly – had actually been the filmmakers’ first choice.
“I always really wanted Shazad Latif to play the main lead guy in it. I’d seen him in another film and thought he was really good for the part. And then it happened that he is really good friends with Lily James; they’re childhood friends, so it suited the backstory of the characters really well.”
The effortlessly charming Emma Thompson was a very obvious choice to portray Zoe’s mother. “We wanted someone of similar stature and similar talent to play opposite Emma and Lily. Sajal Aly felt like that for Lily and Shabana Azmi felt like that for Emma. They felt very well matched. I really believe that Emma and Shabana were friends and lived next door and adored each other, and I felt that Sajal needed to be a really plausible love rival for Lily James, and I feel like Sajal manages that.”
Even Asim Chaudhry was hand-picked by the writer. “I wrote the part of Mo the matchmaker for him. My children are really big fans of his, and I basically sent him a begging direct message on Instagram, saying ‘please, please, please, my children will love me forever if you agree to be in this film!’”
Her plan to please her kids appears to have worked; the movie has their seal of approval! “I was really nervous showing them [the movie] because they’re my biggest critics and they don‘t like romcoms,” she says. “Actually they were really sweet. They shed a tear, they definitely laughed, and they said they were proud, so that was one of the best moments for me in the whole process. I showed them quite an early cut and we did it in the screening room at work, and I remember having this thought, ‘oh it doesn’t matter, whatever else happens, even if no one else likes it, my children have liked it, and I have to try and remember this moment’.”
As luck would have it though, her children aren’t the only ones who have positive things to say about the movie. And while she wants people to be entertained by the romcom, Jemima also hopes to demolish a few stereotypes and misperceptions along the way.
“One of the best things to have come out of it is that loads of my friends who have never been to Pakistan are like ‘oh my god, we wanna go to Pakistan!’ I feel like it should be on the tourist board,” she jokes.
“Maybe if some previously held ideas are somewhat challenged [by watching] the film, then that’s a good thing,” she says. “To be honest, one of the other reasons why I made it was because I used to always hear my friends, [especially] in Lahore, where they would say the way we are always projected on screen in all the films that win awards, we are always the baddies. The Muslims are always the baddies in Hollywood films, in things like Homeland or Zero Dark Thirty. Pakistanis and/or Muslims are always seen as the shady ISI operatives, the terrorists, and all the [villains]. And I think it was a challenge. It was my aim to make a film in which that’s not the case and actually the Pakistani family are very aspirational and there aren’t really any baddies in the film, and it’s a celebration.”
Jemima is touched by the response of British Asians who have remarked on this aspect of the movie. “I feel like my intentions have been fulfilled. I set out with a very clear intention. I actually really wanted Pakistanis to like it. I was really most nervous about that audience. You know the concept of niyat, about intentions – it was one of the nice philosophies that I took away from Pakistan, that actions should be judged by intentions. And that was definitely my intention. Whenever I got scared about the film, I’d think, ‘it’s ok, whatever the reaction, you know what your intentions were’, and I think that that has hopefully paid off in the reaction here.”
While What’s Love Got to Do with It? is inspired by some of the things she experienced during her decade in Pakistan, the project is not autobiographical. But if someone were making a movie about her life, who would she want to portray her in the film? “Gosh!” she smiles. “I don’t know! I don’t think I’d write a film about my life,” she chuckles. “I’d be too worried about breaking confidences and upsetting people, so I don’t know. I genuinely have never thought about that.”
And would she consider writing an autobiography? “I think the same answer applies. I think …” she pauses. “I would consider it; whether I would ever actually do it is another question. I think probably not. The answer is not at the moment.”
She will, however, continue to shine a light on the lives of people who deserve it. Her upcoming work includes the final episode of the documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed. (You can read more about her documentary projects in our next issue.)
And yes, she is also planning to do some more screenwriting. “I think I’m going to write something … I have an idea what it is but I‘m not totally sure so I can’t talk about it yet. You’ll hear about it in 15 years!”