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Mim Shaikh Talks What’s Love Got To Do With It? (The FH Interview)

13 min read

After an extended absence from the British filmmaking scene, director Shekhar Kapur returns with What's Love Got To Do With It? and is dipping his toes into uncharted territory: the rom-com. The film tells the cross-cultural love story of Kaz () recorded by his documentarian best friend Zoe () as he tows the societal and religious tightrope of marital expectations: arranged or genuine? FILMHOUNDS sat down with actor , who stars as Kaz's brother Farooq, to talk about bringing representation and cultural iconography to the mainstream.

First of all, I want to say congrats on the film. I saw it last week and I just thought it was incredible. I was there for a screening, and the reception to seeing such a great film with people of our colour on the screen was amazing. But yeah, I want to ask, you've got such a varied, versatile filmography and a diverse belt of characters. I can imagine playing a British-born Muslim on a scale like this must have been really quite special. So how does a script like this come along? And what's it like reading that for the first time? Because I can't imagine there are many projects out there quite as unique to your own experiences as this one.

Absolutely. Yeah, you're absolutely spot on. I'm glad you got to watch it. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Because like, for me, it's such a big film in regards to celebrating what there is about British Asian communities here in London, specifically. In answer to the question of how did the project come about:  we were in a lockdown. I think it was 2021. My career, from a presenting point of view and radio, kind of came to a standstill because, during COVID, we weren't able to go out. And I got the script in and it had a different title at the time. I remember it was a rainy day, I was just chilling and I spent the whole day reading it. The first time around, I was just like wow this is beautiful. And I read it again for a second time and I was just like oh my god, this is like… I never read anything like this with our dialogue but written from a British perspective. It's so rare. So my eyes, at words, were just lighting up because I was like, this project is amazing. I didn't know at the time who was making it or what production company it was part of. All I knew is that it was written by Jemima [Khan]. And this is what the story was. This is good, not only because it's a great story, but the person who's writing it actually has lived experiences from a country that both my parents were born in. So I was like, wow, there's a level of authenticity there present within the film.

Yeah, you talk about Jemima there. And I think there is something especially profound about such nuanced British Asian characters coming from a non-Muslim writer. And that other people are championing our stories and these stories. Again, for it to be based on her life, it's just so surreal. I can only imagine the kind of stories she has, what kind of conversations did you have with her that maybe informed your approach and informed the character of Farooq?

She kept letting us know, reiterating the point of view that she lived in Pakistan for 10 years. I guess, if it comes to a point where people are questioning whether she is the right person to write a story about British Muslims — if it's not from a person who is a British Muslim, and identifies as that solely, it will probably be better coming from that, right? But if you had to go to someone else, maybe someone second down or third down on the list of who's eligible for it then I think somebody who's lived there for 10 years and has children who are half Pakistani, there is a level of authenticity that comes with that you know? But yeah, she kept reiterating to us that she lived there for 10 years; she sings in Orator better than some of my Aunties and people that I know who are fully Pakistani. So I'm there like nobody can give her – I feel like people might try to give her stick and say “Oh but you're not Muslim” or “You're not this” or “You're not that.” Ultimately, at the end of the day, she's had lived experiences there that inform her creative skill and that's what's right about it.

At the screening that I was at, you and Naughty Boy and Jemima did a great intro.

Oh, amazing! You were at that one! That was cool.

I was at that one, yeah. It was a great crowd, I feel. And when Jemima came out and talked about how it was based on her own life, I was kind of taken aback because, at that point, I didn't know what to expect. And yet it was still a very surreal experience for me watching the film because you get to see so much of your own life on the screen in front of you which for people like us, as we've talked about, is a rare thing, and it's so superbly done. But did you know when you were filming this just how special and resonant it would be or did that come afterwards when you started to see the reactions to the film? 

Yeah, it's a very good question. Because you start with a project by reading the script and if you're a creative individual like myself, you have a wide imagination. So you think “This is how it's going to be,” “That's how it's going to be.” Well, however I thought it was going to be… it was 10 times better. And whatever I thought in terms of “The set is going to be like this” or “The lighting is going to be over there,” or “The cameraman is going to do it from that angle,” they did it 10 times better than I could ever imagine from all the things that I said to even, like, costume and set design. So I would say that when I was on set, yeah, it was probably more like, “Wow, I need to allow myself to take all of this in because this is so rare. And it doesn't happen regularly.” To be selected to be able to portray a character in a film like this, you'd like to really take it in and allow yourself to feel how special it is. And I kept trying to tell myself that so I've got memories of what it was like just so that they stay there and they don't go away anytime soon, you know?

StudioCanal

Yeah, that's crazy. And obviously, you have Shekhar Kapur returning after such an extended absence as well which is so exciting in its own right because he's a bit of a legend. And then there's this great script and this awesome cast. What was that like? The experience of working with him and working with all of these people on the set?

Yeah, definitely a legend. I think it's always everyone's dream to work with established directors and ones that are quite known for the great cinema that they've done. And Shekhar is an individual who has made, arguably, one of the most culturally significant Bollywood films with ‘Mr. India', and one of the greatest villains of all time in cinema history. So working with him, it was very much like “Wow, this man has directed Anil Kapoor.” And my mum is a big fan of Bollywood cinema and so many of his films. And I'm just here like “Wow, okay. Just relax and chill.” And what I realised and what I learned from that man is that he's very much about letting the emotions play out in front of the camera and not trying to over-perform and the idea that less is more. Simplicity is key. He's very in touch with himself and everything around him. I tried to take that on board every day. He's so great.

And there's such an honest, brotherly relationship with Shazad Latif. Plus the rest of the family as well. What I love is that scene where they go into the office to try and do the matchmaking and just the dialogue, it's so authentic and so funny but it's so real as well. I can hear my own family say some of those things, you know? What was it like building that familial dynamic? Is it instantaneous? Or are you guys putting a bit of work into it after hours?

I think, for me, I've been fortunate enough and lucky enough to say that I've been raised around a lot of family and I've never shied away from celebrating my South Asian side. So anytime there would be an Eid gathering, my family will do something. On birthdays, we'd always come together and do something too. We always try to do something when we can and have a good experience with that. And in that, my ensemble is uncles, aunties, younger brothers, younger cousins, you know? So when I came on set and I had to portray that, I went into that mode. I could see that this was not unfamiliar to me. There's biryani on the table. My auntie makes the best. I'm cutting up some fruit. I've definitely done that before. You know, there's different things like that? My brother's coming in and it's Eid. I'm giving him a hug on each side of his shoulder. That's not unfamiliar. All of the things that I needed to kind of convey, I had experience with and I was quite used to. So yeah, it was nice in that sense. I just tapped into those moments for it.

It is the little details that I think make it so brilliant. As you say, the two sides of the hug on Eid. Stuff like that. Something else that I loved, in particular, was the Shaadi (wedding) scene and I have to ask about that because it's not only so authentic and fun, but it's such a gigantic set piece as well. And it was one of those where I was watching it trying to wrap my head around the logistical “what was this like to film” aspect of it. Because it seems like there were so many pieces being juggled there.

Yeah, what Shaadi scene are you talking about? Shazad's one?

Yeah! In Pakistan.

 Yes. Yeah. Oh, man. We walked into that building and it was literally — I don't know what building it was, I think it was somewhere in Oxfordshire that they found and you literally walk in and there's just this massive hall with this balcony thing around the sides. And, yeah, I came into the project at a point where a lot of the work had obviously been done and I've just got to come in and do my scenes with everyone but I can only imagine how much preparation had gone into doing all of that like even the choreographer, you know, he's working on such a huge dance sequence. And then the choreographer said to me “You have to come in and do a dance”. And I was like “Oh yeah, but nobody's done any choreography for me so what am I doing?” And they're like “No, no, exactly. We just want you to do it like that”. So I said “What, you want me to come in and not dance?” And they were like “yeah, just try your best at doing what you can.” And I'm like “So you're trying to make the character look as if he has no sense of rhythm?” And they were like “Yeah, literally.” Okay, all right, cool. So we did that. But it felt natural. Yeah, man, it was nice. You can't have a film like this and not have what they call a number. It's a number. My mum always says “Yay number boht acha tah” (this number was so good) in the film because it was such a nice dance and singing segment. So yeah, I think a lot of work must have gone into just making it look even bigger than it was.

 

StudioCanal

Yeah and the amazing new tune from Naughty Boy as well in that scene that he was speaking about at the screening was just fantastic. It's this other thing though, it's this blend of cultures that I feel so many young British Muslims are going to relate to. It's an identity crisis of sorts, you know, because you're stuck between religion and tradition and society and this very modern approach to love in this film.  But it does show us that there is a middle ground, is that what you've found to be true in your own experiences growing up as a Muslim storyteller here in London?

 Yeah. So very, very, very good question man. I think you're absolutely right. I feel like the narrative of the film is going to connect with people who — well, I think it's going to connect with South Asians full stop everywhere because they're seen on the screen, right? But I think, more particularly, if you're British and you're Pakistani and if you're Muslim, and you're carrying this “Am I British fully? Or am I Pakistani fully? Or am I this or am I that?” And you don't know and you're kind of in the no man's land, it will resonate with you. And I think, for me bro, I've always tried to have my culture and my religion as a part of my identity growing up. And there were moments when I shied away from it because I thought it wasn't cool. I didn't like it. I didn't always understand it. But that was me going through issues myself. Now, I'm at a point where we need to start celebrating where we're from because it makes us so unique. And in the interviews that I'm doing now where I'm talking about this stuff, I'm talking to them about cultural spots in Tooting, for example, where you can go and have authentic South Asian foods. I'm talking to them about going to the mosque and how important that is for somebody who likes to pray every Friday. All of these things that make up who I am, I think it's really important that it's obviously shown on the screen like it is in this film but also just for you to remember that you can be both if you are born in a place that allows you to be both. And the main thing that I think would be amazing for people to take away from this film is that there are no boundaries to love. The main character is juggling whether he goes and marries someone who connects with him on one part of his identity, which is the English side, or following his parents' wishes and him marrying a Pakistani girl through an arranged marriage. That dichotomy is going to be so present in so many men watching this film. And it doesn't mean to say “this is right and that is wrong” or “That is wrong and this is right.” It's just about how relatable that dynamic is going to be from a thought perspective.

Yeah, it does. And I completely agree. Because I think sometimes you see films that are either one or the other. And I think what I appreciated most about this was that it's actually about how you can have the best of both worlds. I think what I'm most excited about is the fact that such a wide audience will get to see that message because it is a big studio rom-com for all cultures and all ages. And, you know, you've talked a little bit about what you hope audiences will take away from it in terms of their thoughts on love. But, more importantly, what do you hope audiences will see about British Muslim culture? For people that aren't Pakistani, what do you hope they'll see in the film?

There was a line in the film that was written. I'm not sure whether it's still in there at the moment because I haven't seen the one that you've seen. I saw the one before that. But there was a line in there from Emma Thompson's character which is something like “they're Muslim but they're not Muslim-Muslim.”

Yeah, that's still in the film. 

That's still there. Right. Okay. For me, that line is — there's so much said in that line because what it's basically saying is, yeah, they're Muslim, but they're not like “terrorists Muslim” or “blowing people up Muslim” or “radical Islamic militant Muslim,” right? Which is how we have been portrayed. I want people to be able to watch the film and be like “yeah, you know what? Why has there been such a bad image of this group of individuals for such a long time” when, actually, from their own families and their friendship groups, they're normal just like everyone else is. They've never had the opportunity to shine and celebrate, on a mainstream level, which is now starting to change. So to British people that watch it, yeah, everyone's human at the end of the day, right? And everybody has their own intrinsic culture, and we should just try and celebrate that and look at people for their humanity rather than how they identify in their religion or stuff like that. That's what I would love for people to take away.

Yeah, I completely agree. I think I came out of it and it was one of those films where immediately I recommended it to my parents but also my friends, again, of all cultures, because I was like everyone needs to just see this film for the iconography of Pakistani and our weddings and all of it. It's just great. But yeah, finally, the last thing I wanted to ask you is: what's next? You act but you also write and present as well. So is there anything exciting that you're working on?

Yeah, I've written two feature films in lockdown. That was a very creative time when I wasn't busy so I did a lot of writing. I've written two feature films that I'm trying to get commissioned. I'm trying to move forward with that but I'm finding it a little bit difficult at the moment. Hopefully, with this film coming out, that might help. I've got an independent feature film coming out at some point this year called Die Before You Die. And then I have another short film coming out that I star in called Nearly Never which looks at the NHS during COVID and what kind of effects it had. Those are the two projects acting-wise and then I've got two projects writing-wise that I'm trying to move forward with. So it's all going on.

 

What's Love Got To Do With It? is released in cinemas on Friday 24th February.