Talking love with Jemima Khan: British journalist and screenwriter on complex emotions that define modern relationships

She opens up about how she drew inspiration from her own experiences as a British woman navigating Pakistani culture to write her first feature film What's Love Got to Do with It

By Sadiq Saleem

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Published: Thu 9 Feb 2023, 8:11 PM

Last updated: Thu 9 Feb 2023, 8:12 PM

When asked about characteristics people must look out for in their partners before marriage, Jemima Khan, almost promptly, lists out value system, honesty and decency as the key requisites. That coming from someone who has endured so much in the name of love is reassuring.

Jemima, who was named by Vogue as the ‘Epitome of modern glamour’, became the most recognisable face in the 90s when she married Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan at the age of 21. She spent a decade in Pakistan and then moved back to the UK where she continued journalism with publications like British Vogue, Vanity Fair and The Independent. Being an ardent supporter of human rights, Jemima, from the start of her time in Pakistan and even before that had been raising her voice for social justice, peace and equality. When she returned home, she recommended the idea of arranged marriages, that she widely witnessed in Pakistan, to her friends in the UK who were looking to settle down. Questions such as who the parents would have chosen and would it really work became subjects of discussion. Since then the idea of assisted marriages had been toiling in Jemima’s mind until she decided to jot it all down in a script.

It seems that her love for Pakistan hasn’t subsided after all these years. Jemima drew inspiration from her own experiences as a British woman navigating Pakistani culture to write her first feature film What's Love Got to Do with It which is directed by Oscar nominee Shekhar Kapur and revolves around the idea of finding love in the age of dating apps.

wknd. caught up with the effervescent Jemima in a tell-all conversation about love and the pain and pleasure that it brings along.

In what way does the film What's Love Got to Do with It show Pakistan differently?

I can’t comment on the depiction of Pakistan in other projects because they had their own reasons and merits, but I had never seen Pakistan in the context of a rom-com. The narrative that we are used to hearing around Pakistan is a ‘scary’ one, especially by people or forces who do not know the country. Quite often in films such as Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland, you see Muslims and Pakistanis being depicted as the baddies and Pakistan is seen as a really scary, dark place. The colourful, vibrant and hospitable Pakistan that I have experienced has never been shown or seen widely.

You have served as an editor for some publications, but scriptwriting is certainly a different ball game. What were the challenges that you faced?

Scriptwriting follows a process and learning that process took some time. It is like scraping out and removing the excess. It’s about what you leave out, not what you include. You keep deleting and editing until everything means something. And so I got a chance to make the romantic comedy version of Pakistan, with Working Titles Films that invested in rom-coms and an amazing cast including Sajal Ali, who is a beautiful Pakistani actress and the very talented Shabana Azmi from India, who is an absolute goddess and Lily James, who is also wonderful, and Emma Thompson, Shahzad Latif, and others. I wanted to name the film Love Insh’Allah but there was some pushback so we zeroed in on What’s Love Got to Do with It.

Looking back, how do you remember your decade spent in Pakistan?

When I lived there, I experienced a huge amount of love, warmth and humour. People are fun but the most notable characteristic is that all Pakistanis have a very big heart. They either love you or hate you. There is nothing in between. I also feel that it’s a very hospitable place. When you go there from outside, people open their doors for you in a way that is special. Also, one of the best things that I learnt in Pakistan was to develop faith in niyat (intention); which means that actions are judged based on the intention. And I hope that Pakistanis will judge the film through my intention, which is aimed at portraying them as normal people and not scary creatures.

Notions of love, marriage and relationships have undergone a major change among young South Asians. What is your take on modern-day relationships in the age of dating apps?

Love and relationships have almost become like commodities. There is arguably so much choice and everything is so commercialised that it feels disposable. When I got married, I was only 21 and I moved to Pakistan and lived in a joint family set up. There, the concept of arranged marriages was very common and I was surprised to see that those marriages were successful because as they went along they found love for one another, but those were different times I guess.

Tell us about your collaboration with the 3Ss from the Asian film industry: Shabana, Sajal and Shekhar?

It was so amazing to collaborate with these legends. Shabana is an icon and such an incredible actress. I am so lucky to have her in my film. She is a complete match for Emma Thompson and I feel that they are at par in terms of acting quality and overall ‘fabulousness’. Sajal for me is at par with Lily. They both are such vivacious and strong characters in the film.

Marriage is a universal institution but it is certainly influenced by different cultures. Have you noticed anything particularly different in a western marriage?

In the West, there is a tendency to put too much expectation and emphasis on a singular couple and on one person. That one person whom you fall in love with and marry is responsible to fulfil every single need of yours. That just creates too much pressure and adds to stress levels and frustration. I come from a school of thought that believes different groups of people including friends, families and colleagues should be offering all those things and not just one person.

Arranged marriage is still an alien concept in many parts of the world. How did you simplify that in your film?

Our intention was to show how arranged marriages have shaped up in the modern world. The term we have used is ‘assisted marriage’ where people who know you the best and love you the most, such as your parents and family, introduce you to a potential match. The hope that is built and broken with each profile and the odds of a match turning into a reality. Dating apps have a huge role in the film and when you look at these apps, they are also a kind of set up where the computer algorithm is assisting you in finding a suitable match. The film is about ways we choose to find lasting love, without judgement.

You have also been a journalist. Given how the digital media has changed the game for journalism, where do you think it's headed?

I am still stuck between the two worlds as I read a lot of stuff online but at the same time I like to read the printed newspaper. Again, it’s a matter of what you need and when you need something. For research, I believe online is more effective, but I am equally comfortable with both so far.

Both your children are in their 20s now. How has your relationship with them transformed in their adulthood?

I am not sure if the relationship has changed. We are still very close; it’s a maternal instinct after all, which no matter how old your children get, stays intact. Yes, with the kids growing up, they certainly have more autonomy, but I am always on top of it and trying to tell them what to do. Fundamentally, I respect them as human beings. They have a good value system, they are honest, and they are low key. I am extremely proud of them.

Sadiq Saleem is a Dubai-based entertainment writer. His Instagram handle is @sadiqidas.

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