LONDON: British screenwriter and producer Jemima Khan has said that her film ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ is her love letter to Pakistan – the country where she lived and grew up for ten years and retains strong connections.
In an exclusive interview with Geo and The News, Jemima Khan spoke emotionally about Pakistan; how she learnt in Pakistan to rely on Neeat (intentions) and how this defines her life; her plans to promote Pakistani talent globally with help from Fatima Bhutto (niece of Benazir Bhutto and daughter of late Mir Murtaza Bhutto); reaction of her British Pakistani sons to the arranged marriages; her life in Zaman Park while being married to Imran Khan; her experience of Pakistani society and culture; Sajal Ali and Rahat Fateh’s music; and her fondness for Pakistan. In particular, she answered a question about the demand of some of her fans to return to Pakistan for settlement.
Jemima Khan said she set a challenge to herself that she will write a film that celebrated Pakistan. “I wanted to show the colourful, beautiful, joyful place that I knew when I was in Pakistan as opposed to the Pakistan we often see on the Western screens. You know quite often in films such as Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland, you see Muslims and Pakistanis depicted as the baddies and Pakistan is seen as a really scary, dark place. And so I got a chance to make the romantic comedy version of Pakistan, with Working Title Film that invested rom-coms, with beautiful cast with Sajal Ali who is a beautiful Pakistani actress and very talented Shabana Azmi from India who is an absolute goddess and Lily James who is wonderful and Emma Thomson, Shahzad Latif and others.”
Jemima Khan said that she wanted to celebrate and show Pakistan and from the very beginning hoped that this film will “come across as my love letter to Pakistan. This place where I kind of feel like I grew up when. I went there when I was 20 and I was 30 when I left. And I feel that it’s somewhere that it became part of me. I have huge affection for the country and have many Pakistani friends. I still get a lot of love from Pakistan and I am very lucky and very grateful for that, so I just really hope that Pakistanis like it”.
The socialite, writer and activist confirmed that ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ is inspired by her own real-life event of living in Pakistan but she stressed that this was not a biopic and not her story.
Speaking to this correspondent at a Central London hotel, Jemima Khan stressed, “Every single anecdote or character or line in the film comes from something but it’s not a biopic, it’s not my story. You can tell it’s definitely based on stuff that I saw or experienced. And it also reflects my journey and my understanding of what an arranged marriage is.”
Jemima Khan said that at the age of 21 in Pakistan, she had very limited understanding of these things but she grew to understand these things well. At the same time, she said that a lot of people in the West would think that this (arranged marriage) is an outdated idea, that it makes no sense and that a lot of people in this country “conflate the idea of forced marriage and arranged marriage which are, of course, completely different”.
Jemima Khan shared with Geo News what it was like living in Lahore’s famous Zaman Park with her in-laws for 10 years. She said that after marrying Imran Khan she went to Lahore where she lived with her ex-husband’s large and joint family who are “pretty conservative”.
Jemima said, “We lived in a joint family household. I lived with my ex-husband’s sisters, their husbands, their children, his father, all in one house, in Zaman Park, and all his other relatives lived in Zaman Park as most people know.”
Jemima Khan said that during her decade-long stay in Pakistan, she saw arranged marriages “up-close, long-term ones, and ones that were being arranged and I saw people who were really happy and they were successful in those marriages”.
After her marriage with Imran Khan ended, Jemima came back to the UK “with a completely different view of how these things work and with a totally different viewpoint to most of my friends, my old British friends, so I came back saying to them as a joke who would your parents choose for you, given the choice if you let your parents choose a candidate for you to get to meet and potentially marry, who would it be and more importantly would it work? And that was the first idea for the film”.
She then spoke about the footprints of her Pakistan cultural experience in the film. “As you know from having watched the film that the white British, non-Pakistani character basically gets the point where she asks her mum to suggest somebody for her because she is copying her British Pakistani neighbours whose son, her best friend, is having an arranged marriage.”
Jemima Khan spoke emotionally about the reaction of her sons Suleman Khan and Qasim Khan to their mother’s film because their feedback mattered the most to her. She also revealed that her British Pakistani teenage sons are her biggest critics too.
She said, “Their reaction has definitely been the highlight, the whole experience, because they are not rom-com lovers; they don’t like those kinds of films. They are my biggest critics and obviously they are half Pakistani Muslim kids, whether they liked it (the film) or not was very important to me; I got them to see it and they said at the end of it, I could see them being a little tearful, and I also heard them laughing. They said, ‘Amma we are so proud of you’. I think they knew how hard I worked at it. And I literally thought for a while that if no one else likes it, this is the moment.”
Jemima Khan shared the background of how she cast super talented Pakistani actress Sajal Ali in a star role in the film. Jemima was looking for a perfect match to English actress Lily James – “someone as beautiful and as good an actor and as vivacious and as nuanced as Lily James is”.
Instead of reaching out to a talent agency in Pakistan, as she didn’t know if there existed one, she rang up her ex-husband’s friend Yousuf Salahuddin. Describing the Lahori man as the “unofficial king of culture in Pakistan”, Jemima Khan said she told Yousuf Salli what she needs in a Pakistani actress in terms of age, character and looks and Yousuf Salahuddin instantly told her that Sajal Ali will do justice to the role. “He sent me a video and put me in touch with Sajal Ali’s manager and then after that she auditioned for the part and everyone was in agreement that she was perfect for the role. So it was Yousuf who was the casting agent,” shared Jemima. About casting actors for her film from India, Pakistan and the UK, Jemima Khan said, “I want this film to be enjoyed by everybody. Obviously it relates to my experience in Pakistan but I hope the issues in it are more global and relatable on a wider scale and I love that the best Indian and Pakistani talent is altogether in one film. Even musically we have Naughty Boy, Nitin Sawhney and Rahat. I mean can you imagine he played himself in the film, he played at my wedding. I was a big Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan fan and obviously Rahat as well, so to have him play himself in the film and do the music for it is amazing. Lilly now sings on that track as well; she does the English lyrics. I love that it’s a bringing together of different talents from different countries: British, British Asian, British Pakistanis, British Indians, Pakistanis, Indians, and that’s really important to me and that’s why I desperately don’t want it to be sullied by politics and I want it to exist above politics.”
Jemima Khan made the film when Covid pandemic travel restrictions were in place and she had to do a lot of shooting about Pakistan in London. It was the celebrated Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy who helped Jemima.
She said, “Filming was challenging at that time, it was during Covid, it was challenging and we couldn’t travel or anything but we got help of the brilliant Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy who is my friend and she helped us by filming a second unit in Lahore. I just basically said (to Sharmeen) if she can please make sure that Lahore looks beautiful in the shots.”
About releasing the film in Pakistan, Jemima Khan said, “Yes, Inshaallah. It’s releasing everywhere in all territories to the cinema.”
When asked if she will do a Pakistani film, especially after the smash hit success of Maula Jutt film, Jemima praised Pakistani showbiz and arts talent and revealed that she was working with writer and activist Fatima Bhutto on major plans to help Pakistani talent.
Jemima Khan said, “I think Pakistan has the most incredible talent and actually I want to try and do some kind of mentorship scheme and I am actually talking to Fatima Bhutto, my friend, about putting together some kind of fund or mentorship scheme to help filmmakers in Pakistan get their work made and seen globally because there is so much talent in Pakistan. I know it’s a busy year, there are documentaries and feature films and these are being celebrated but there is so much more if you think how hard it is to get things done. There is so much talent in that country, so I really want to try and find a way to help get that talent showcased internationally.”
Jemima Khan shared that one of the best things that she learnt in Pakistan was to develop faith in ‘Neeat’ (intention) and she hopes that Pakistanis will judge her film through her ‘Neeat’ which is aimed at portraying Pakistanis as normal people and not scary creatures.
Jemima Khan said, “You know the best thing that I came from my time in Pakistan, the best lesson I learnt was the concept of Neeat, the intention, and I think everything in life, whether you make mistakes or not; we need to live in a world where people judge things by intentions and definitely I hope people will see that my intention behind making this film was one of love for Pakistan.”
She hoped that Pakistanis inside Pakistan and abroad would come to cinemas to watch her film. She told Geo News, “I just really hope that people will enjoy it and be entertained by it and understand.”
After returning to the UK from Pakistan nearly two decades ago, Jemima Khan has made her name as a writer, commentator, activist and TV producer but she shared how she ended up writing the first film of her life – and that too, about Pakistan.
Jemima Khan, who has edited several leading magazines in the UK including Newstatesman, said, “Normally I produce documentaries, usually quite serious ones, and television shows for the US and UK.
“About 10 years ago, I had this terrible idea of writing a film and it took me, I mean, years and years and years to get to the point where we are now promoting the film for cinema. I thought it was much easier than what it was, I didn’t know how to do it and I had to learn.”
This correspondent asked her about the love emojis she gets on Twitter and requests from her Twitter followers to consider returning to Pakistan, settle there and maybe marry again.
Jemima Khan replied: “Pakistan zindabad.”
‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ is released in UK Cinemas on 24th February.
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