The following post is part of an ongoing series by writers/authors in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the publication of Tanuja Desai Hidier’s landmark novel Born Confused, which is considered to the first ever South Asian American young adult novel (and in part inspired the creation of Brown Girl Magazine!)… as well as the 15th real-time birthday of Born Confused and award-winning sequel Bombay Blues heroine Dimple Lala. #BornConfused15
Toward the end of Born Confused, Dimple and her father are in the car after their [New Jersey] temple outing. He is reminiscing about the Corn Muffin Dates they used to have when Dimple was small. Meanwhile, she is reminiscing about the letters he used to type on his Smith Corona, inviting her out, that would start, My Dearest Miss Bachoodi.
“How I cherished those mornings,” Dimple’s father says, confessing how much he misses them. “It’s just that when you got so busy, with school, your friends, your life,” he goes on a bit later. “And now you are all grown up…I suppose that’s what happens; it is only natural, especially in America. But it’s funny—if someone had told me before we left India that I might lose my daughter even more quickly in the process, I would not have budged one inch.”
There are a thousand scenes from Born Confused worth spending an essay on for the fifteenth anniversary of its publication. Scenes that cracked me up, made me think, made me want to scream in frustration (Oh Gwyn!), or that made me laugh until I couldn’t breathe (the pot-smoking one will always be one of my favorite scenes in all of YA, when Dimple is high, philosophizing, and under the bed). Then there are the umpteen, unforgettable, enviably romantic moments between Dimple and dreamy Karsh.
But the one I quote above is the one I always come back to.
Dimple’s relationship with her father killed me, still kills me. I couldn’t even quote it here without getting weepy. I am sniffling as I write this.
In Dimple’s constant struggle with her parents, to be both American and Indian, to somehow reconcile these two parts of who she is, Tanuja captures something deeply painful and complicated about the lives of so many families, where old-world parents are trying to raise children to be American in ways they never were and never will be—while at the same time somehow holding their children back from the ways that American life scares and upsets them. Most scary of all, of course, is the part where children “becoming American” rises like a wall that parents don’t know how to scale. As Dimple’s father expresses so movingly, raising Dimple in America meant he’d lose her that much more quickly.
Tanuja draws out the hilarity in the conflict between the old world and new—because it really is the stuff of comedy—but never loses the poignancy of it. There is such sadness in this conflict, in the way that immigrant and first-generation families want so much for their new American children, all the opportunities they never had, yet at the same time, in working so hard to give them these opportunities, risk losing them outright; risk not recognizing themselves or their rituals and culture in their own children.
One of my favorite essayists, Richard Rodriguez, was born in California into a Mexican immigrant family. In “Aria” he writes of the demand from his parents that their children speak—and only speak—in English. His parents desperately wanted their children to have all the educational and professional opportunities that made them immigrate. But the better their children’s English became, the quieter their home became, too. While his parents wanted their children to speak English, they didn’t speak it themselves.
“The family’s quiet was partly due to the fact that, as we children learned more and more English,” Rodriguez writes, “we shared fewer and fewer words with our parents…After English became my primary language, I no longer knew what words to use in addressing my parents. The old Spanish words (those tender accents of sound) I had used earlier—mamá and papá—I couldn’t use anymore.”
For Rodriguez, his American education made him into the revered intellectual his parents dreamed about, while at the same time was responsible for the great tragedy of his life—the loss of understanding, of communication, between himself and his Mexican parents.
I am not Indian-American, like Dimple (and Tanuja), or Mexican-American like Richard Rodriguez. But the tragi-comedic conflict between old and new world is familiar, funny, and nostalgically painful to me, as well.
My mother’s family immigrated from Italy and my father’s from São Miguel in the Azores, an archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that belongs to Portugal. My parents had such particular expectations for what I would do with my life. I would go to college (my father didn’t, my mother did). I would be an accountant because everyone needs accountants. I would get a job, then meet a nice young Italian or Portuguese Catholic, then get married, then have babies. My parents wanted me to have the life they never had but that they’d wished for and that their parents had wished for them. Their lives were hard when they were young and they were hard when they were older, too.
My parents were strict in a way that perhaps only parents from immigrant and first-generation families can be. They were terrified of everything. Terrified I’d do drugs. Get pregnant. Kiss a boy (which would likely lead to pregnancy). Get a B+ in school (which would likely ruin my entire future and then all would be lost). Make a friend that would lead me into drug-doing and/or pregnancy-getting. Become an artist (artists don’t make any money). Stop believing in God and going to church (which would, of course, end in pregnancy).
When I pressed against their fears and their hopes, the drama was like something out of a sitcom. Italians are loud and my mother was no exception. She could guilt-trip you like a master. She’d pray to her saints for my obedience, for my salvation, for my grades, for my continued state of non-pregnancy. I would go off to my room, or to wherever I could get away, cursing her existence.
But my father was and is still the silent type. My mother and I would scream and fight, I would call all of her rules insane and unfair, and my father would shuffle into my room, later on, sit down on my bed and say,
“You know it’s because your mother loves you. We both love you. We just want the best for you.”
My father was quiet but quick with the hugs, the willingness to go swimming on the beach, or take me for forbidden plates of nachos piled high with chili and cheese that mom wouldn’t have let either one of us eat. With my father, I could feel the intensity of their yearnings, that their hopes and dreams rested on my ability to live what they didn’t. I could see the sadness and confusion about how, the more I pursued such things, the more difficult our relationship became. I wanted to please him, please them, so badly. I wanted to make them proud. I think, most of the time, I just confused them by my choices—choices I was able to make because of their sacrifices on my behalf.
I’ve spent much of my adulthood trying to cross the distance that opened between my parents and me as I grew up into a world they’d wanted for me, but weren’t really a part of themselves. Dimple’s relationship with her parents, but with her father especially, embodies that dissonance. Their struggle to somehow reconcile it, despite everything, is expressed more vividly and honestly than perhaps in any other novel I’ve ever read.
But for that one moment I quoted above, as Dimple is seeing her father with new eyes, noticing the gray in his hair, how he is getting old, they manage to find a way to be both old and new, before and now, somehow crossing that seemingly impossible distance to find each other again. It is a moment of beauty, of hope, of understanding. A big long wish for so many families who know that divide all too well.
In that moment, Dimple finds that she wants to cry. As always, whenever I read that part of Born Confused, I do, too.
Donna Freitas is the author of eight novels for children and young adults, including The Survival Kit (FSG, 2011), named an ALA Best Books for Young Adults and the winner of the Bookstar Award in Switzerland, and This Gorgeous Game (FSG, 2010), also named an ALA Best Books for Young Adults, a winner of the CCBC Choice Award, and a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best winner. Her novel, The Possibilities of Sainthood (FSG, 2008), received five starred reviews and many accolades, including an Indie Next Kids’ List Great Read, Society of School Librarians International Book Award Honor Book, VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers, and the Texas Lone Star Reading List. Donna has also published two middle-grade companion novels with Scholastic, Gold Medal Summer (about a gymnast) and Gold Medal Winter (about an ice skater). Last year, Unplugged the first novel in her sci-fi trilogy about two competing worlds, one real, one virtual, came out from HarperTeen, with The Body Market and The Mind Virus both to be published this year. She lives in Brooklyn.
January 18, 2023January 18, 2023 9min readBy Arun S.
Neha Samdaria is the founder and CEO of Aam, a new type of fashion label. Aam’s mission is to change the way womxn with the hourglass and pear-shaped body types shop for clothing. The word Aam means ordinary in Hindi. The community consists predominantly of womxn of colour with naturally curvier hips. Aam has a low return rate of 3%. The team at Aam has built sizing charts and tested them over a 10-month period. The clothing was made with sustainable materials in ethical factories. If you are struggling to find clothes that fit appropriately check out Aam today. Continue reading to learn more about Neha Samadria’s company Aam!
What were your personal struggles with shopping for clothing that fit and how did these experiences inspire you to start a company?
I have what you would call a “pear shaped” body, meaning my hips and thighs are wider than my upper half. I’m 1-2 sizes bigger on the bottom than on the top and for years, I’ve struggled to find clothes – especially pants – that fit me correctly. Too tight on the hips? Size up. Too loose on the waist? Wear a belt. My entire life, I felt alone in my struggle. Eventually, the pant shopping experience became so unpleasant that I started avoiding them entirely – choosing to opt for dresses, skirts and stretchy leggings instead.
When I arrived at Stanford Business School in 2016, I learned that I was far from alone in my experience. 1 in 4 American women – predominantly women of color – shared my struggles. And when I dug deeper to understand why, I uncovered the bias-riddled foundation of size charts in the United States. When I learned that the fit issue was systemic and rooted in bad data, I felt inspired to do something.
You’ve had a range of experiences working in consulting, marketing, as well as completing an MBA program. How have these range of experiences helped you start a company?
On a practical level, acquiring a range of skills helps with the various hats you have to wear as a CEO. On a daily basis, I am a strategist, marketer, fulfiller, accountant and designer. But the biggest thing I feel I’ve gained is an approach to tackling new problems. One of the toughest things about being a solo Founder is that the buck stops with you. You have to have faith that even if a problem is brand new and well outside your area of expertise, you’ll be able to forge a path forward. My life before Aam gave me a lot of practice in that.
Have you faced adversity as a newcomer in this space?
The biggest adversity we’ve faced is in marketing and sales. As a bootstrapped e-commerce business with no outside investment, it’s been tough to compete with large retailers with big marketing budgets. How do you get noticed as a small brand? Through trial and error we’ve found success in niche influencers who are excited by the problem we’re solving and are keen to support, in-person markets and events, and organic, word of mouth referral. We’re also beginning to partner with marketplaces and small retailers, to expand our brand reach.
Who are some mentors and leaders you look up to and what characteristics do they possess that you sought to emulate while starting your own company?
My biggest mentors are bootstrapped entrepreneurs who built up their businesses brick by brick. My father is one such example, and I have a handful of folks in my circle who have done the same. I find their grit and scrappiness inspiring; most of them don’t have a professional degree and gained their business acumen on the field.
I also admire kind and supportive leaders; team culture is one of the most difficult things to nail, and you have to be intentional from the beginning. I had a wonderful boss at my first job out of college. He knew how to nurture the strengths of his direct reports and wasn’t afraid to task them with challenging, meaningful work. Crucially, he was always there as our safety net in case we had questions or needed help along the way. I’ve tried to build the same type of ethos within Aam.
Do you see Aam as a strong contender in the fashion industry helping a wide variety of individuals?
I do! We’re one of the only brands catering to pear and hourglass shapes, perhaps because the fit issue is so fundamental and expensive to fix (see Q7). But beyond this, we’re one of the only brands that focuses on fit – period. The entire industry – from runways to fast fashion brands – is focused largely on design, when poor fit is actually the #1 driver of returns. Aam’s return rate is just 3%, vs. an e-commerce industry standard of ~30%. We can make the industry more customer-centric and less wasteful by investing in the early steps of proper sizing and fit testing.
In terms of helping a “wide variety” of individuals, Aam is a niche brand that is committed to helping the 1 in 4 women with curvy hips and thighs. I don’t plan to expand to other shapes at this time because I believe that in order to add value, you can’t be all things to all people. Our community has been underserved for almost 100 years and we’re here for them.
What made you decide to name the company Aam?
“Aam” means “ordinary” in Hindi, my native tongue. The company’s approach to design – starting with the consumer, and designing entirely for her – runs counter to the industry. My goal with this business is to make this consumer-centric approach to design more “ordinary,” giving power back to the women who wear our clothes, and elevating their voices on a global stage.
What is the process of rethinking fit standards?
Modern size charts are based largely off of a 1939 study that surveyed 15,000 women across the U.S. This study was flawed for several reasons including: 1) it relied on bust measurements, assuming women are proportional throughout and 2) it excluded women who were not Caucasian from the final results, thereby underrepresenting body shapes that are more commonly found among women of color.
At Aam, we’ve rebuilt a fresh dataset of 314 women across the U.S. who have pear and hourglass shapes, and are using this dataset to inform all of our collections. By fixing bad data, we’re addressing the root cause of poor fit and rethinking fit standards.
Where do you feel the fashion industry can improve?
There are big opportunities for improvement in supply chain, fit and inclusion.
On the supply chain side, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to ethics and sustainability. There are great auditing standards out there (SEDEX, OEKO-TEX, GOTS, for example), but only a small percentage of factories are certified. In 2021, as I was building out my supply chain in India, I visited factories that spanned the full gamut, from regularly-audited, responsible manufacturers to those who enforced 14+ hour daily shifts and refused even chairs for their workers to sit on. Brands are engaging in conversations about diversity and inclusion but it’s often on the consumer side; few are willing to be as transparent when it comes to their supply chains, where women of color are disproportionately exploited. As consumers, one easy thing we can all do is check the Ethics & Sustainability page of the brands we love. Do they talk about certified factories, third party audits and following sustainability standards? If not, we have the power to ask – why?
I’ve shared a bit above about the issues surrounding fit – it is the single biggest driver of returns, an issue that has been plaguing retailers for decades. It’s costly, harms the environment and (in the long term) hurts your brand. I believe that investing in better upstream processes – improved size charts and more rigorous fit testing – will lead to huge improvements down the line.
And finally, inclusion. One of my pet peeves is seeing brands design styles that are clearly intended for straight shapes and small sizes and then scale them up to mid and plus sizes claiming that they now design “for all bodies.” Putting ill-fitted pieces on models of different shapes and sizes doesn’t mean you understand or care about that customer. We should be asking ourselves – what does this customer really want? How is this garment going to make her feel? How can we design FOR her, first and foremost? This is being inclusive in a real way.
As a CEO of a company what is your daily routine?
My day starts the night prior, when I write down my priorities for the upcoming day. I use this great planner by Kindred Braverly that helps break down my activities into bite size segments. I’m not a morning person and part of my team is based in India (with a flipped schedule), so I usually start my date late around 9am.
First, I workout, so I can feel like I’ve accomplished something early in the day. Then, I grab breakfast, coffee and start work around 10:30. I start with the highest priority items on my list, which can range anywhere from sales and marketing to strategic planning and design. I work in 1hr increments with 10-15 mins of break in between. During these breaks, I’ll step outside, hydrate or crank up some music and just free dance. I try to get away from a screen, so I can return to my work with fresh eyes.
I then have a hard stop from 7-9pm to spend time with my husband, and then I’ll usually squeeze in an additional hour or two of work with my India team, before heading to bed.
Early in my Founder journey, I started tracking productivity patterns during my week. For example, I’m usually less productive on Mondays than I am later in the week. So I try to schedule more interesting, strategic work early in the week in order to stay motivated. I also work a half day on Sundays, to take some of the pressure off of the following week.
As there are many companies interested in fast fashion, how does your company differ in terms of sustainable materials and ethical factories?
Responsible production is one of our brand pillars, so we think about it in each step of the process. All of our suppliers must be third-party certified for ethical working conditions from one of the leading, global certification programs (more info here).
Additionally, we use sustainable fabrics in all of our collections. For example, we work with organic cotton (vs. regular cotton), which saves water and is made without toxic pesticides. We work with new fabrics, like lyocell, that can emulate the handfeel and durability of less sustainable fibers without the environmental footprint. In our most recent collection, we introduced premium deadstock wool, which is fabric that was produced in excess by brands and would have otherwise gone to waste. We also ensure that all of our dyes are free of Azo compounds (several of which are carcinogenic) via rigorous testing.
On the production side, we rely on a combination of third-party audits as well as personal, first-party checks. I’ve spent days in each of our factories, observing the working conditions and interacting with the team.
On the packaging side, we spent a great deal of time thinking about how to recycle and reuse. Each Aam pant comes inside a reusable cotton cover, inspired by the beautiful saree covers you see in southern India. This cotton cover is placed inside a fully recyclable box, with a simple packing slip and card. There’s no excess paper, bubble wrap, or cardboard.
I’m proud of where we are in terms of ethics and sustainability – and I think we can still do better!
We would love to hear some testimonials from previous customers.
“I have paid hundreds of dollars for ‘custom fit pants’ from various brands, and none of them fit quite as well as this pant did straight out of the box.” – The Flex Waist Pant, Size S
“This pant is amazing!! It is so lightweight and breathable… the material is so soft and silky, it feels like you’re wearing PJs but they look like elegant chic work/business pants.” – The Wide Leg Pant, Size M
“Never have I ever been able to easily pull a pair of pants over my thighs. I have ALWAYS had to jump to pull my pants up comfortably. These pants are amazing.” – The Crop Pant, Size L
“I can tell these are Aam pants instantly from how they taper at the waist. No other pants do that.” – The Limited Edition Wool Wide Leg Pant, Size S
Where do you see the company expanding in terms of different types of clothing offered?
I see bottoms as the biggest area of need, so we’ll first expand to other types of bottoms or clothes with bottoms: skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, potentially underwear and swim. Then, we’ll start expanding into other categories.
What is the toughest part of running your own company?
Staying motivated and showing up every day – even the bad days. As a Founder, there’s no one to answer to, no fixed schedule, and progress can sometimes feel very slow. There are weeks where I feel frustrated because I keep missing targets. Other weeks, we get a string of wins. It’s important to detach myself from both types of outcomes (wins and losses) and take neither very personally. This helps me commit instead to the process and just focus on the next small step forward.
But, easier said than done!
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I’ve read Brown Girl Magazine for years and am so honored to be featured. I hope folks reading this feel inspired to tackle whatever problem – small or large – that they understand innately. Personal experience is a powerful motivator and difficult for others to replicate.
The expansion of digital content across radio, television and the internet has allowed audiences to engage with media rapidly. As technology advances, the entertainment industry has grown exponentially and people have a wealth of information at their fingertips in the blink of an eye. Since high school, Deepa Prashad was fascinated by this power of media and aspired to be an on-air personality who could interact with viewers through creative content whilst representing her Indo Caribbean heritage. After navigating the competitiveness of Canadian broadcast hosting for seven years, Prashad continues to push herself into various modalities of media and add to her growing successes, while championing others to share their own authentic content.
Self-confidence and the desire to show a different perspective on entertainment prompted Prashad to be interested in broadcasting. While initially nervous about her family’s reaction to a nontraditional career path for Indo Caribbean women, Prashad received her parents’ full support and became the first person in her family to study broadcasting at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.
She began applying for television-hosting positions in her first year despite not having any experience or a finished degree, affirming, “I totally believed in myself and my capabilities.”
In an interview with Prashad, we delve into her career path, diverse representation in media and her courage to create and promote content that reflects her individuality.
How did you begin your career in hosting and digital content production?
The kids channel I watched growing up, The Family Channel, was doing a nationwide casting call for their new TV host. The host would host interstitials between shows, digital series, and do TV show and movie interviews. I didn’t have an agent at the time so I applied on my own. I was called in for my first audition ever and it was quite shocking. A room full of 10 to 15 people just observing me as I delivered lines and did mock interviews for fake shows. Two months later, I was officially cast as the host of The Family Channel!
While ecstatic about her first job, Prashad was met with racism. She stated,
Someone else, who applied for the position, made it a point to come up to me in person to say that they hoped I knew the only reason I got the job was because I was brown and the company obviously just needed to fill a quota.
Brushing the words aside, she continued hosting on The Family Channel for five years. She has also worked as an entertainment and food reporter on Canadian shows, Breakfast Television and Cityline. By advocating for herself as capable, personable and multifaceted, she did not shy away from new opportunities to advance her career and showcased herself as a leader who could resonate with broad audiences.
Wanting to explore new horizons, Prashad approached the social media company blogTO and pitched herself to be their first full-time video host focusing on Toronto food hotspots. After being hired, she visited multiple restaurants daily to host, film and edit her own content and curated personalized food videos for viewers to immerse themselves in. Prashad later forayed into the world of radio, one she never thought she would join but quickly fell in love with. She was most recently the first female voice on Toronto’s KISS 92.5 channels, The Roz and Mocha Show. Prashad enjoyed the greater flexibility of being on the radio compared to television and video hosting,
All I had to present was me. It became such a personal experience for me getting on that mic, sharing stories with listeners about the way I was raised, coming from a Guyanese household, being part of an (interfaiths marriage), [etc…] That created an incredibly strong bond between myself, our listeners and our friends that I’m so grateful for.
Tell us about your current position.
“I’m moving onto new adventures now and adding sports reporting under my belt. I will be joining BarDown | TSN to cover Formula 1, this includes doing content for TSN in the digital and TV space. I’ve never dabbled in the world of sports, so this is going to be an interesting new road for me.”
What topics are you most passionate about when creating digital content and why?
Food has to be my number one passion when it comes to digital content. Obviously I love eating and trying new things, but food is such a universal language. It connects people, it excites people and often teaches people about different cultures. I love to see how that content can generate conversations and I love to see when people admit they’ve never tried that particular food or cuisine, but added it to their list.
I also love creating Formula 1 content because Formula 1 is a massive passion of mine! I currently Twitch stream playing the Formula 1 video game F1 22. I’ve been on a pursuit to continuously learn more about the sport and to even get better at the game, because let’s be real, I’m terrible at it but I’m also OK with that!
Prashad is not immune to online mockery and negative comments about her work. When making the switch to Formula 1, she was ridiculed by some male viewers over her love of the sport and was inundated with comments like “Go back to the dishes” or “Go do laundry where you belong.” Antiquated and sexist notions about being a working woman in the media led to her looks being graded; there were comments regarding her extroverted personality and rampant discussions over her weight. There was a moment in her career where Prashad admits,
I actually wanted to make changes to myself — try to be a little less outgoing, not be so loud, change my hosting style from this incredibly bubbly style to a more laid back informative take.
Drawing on her self-belief, she soon realized that, “This doesn’t work for me. I began to appreciate all my quirks.”
Is there an area of hosting or content production that you believe you’re better at?
I really love to host digital content in particular because there’s a certain freedom that comes with it. I don’t always have to be prim and proper like sometimes I do need to do for TV. I can be me — loud, goofy, and incredibly dorky. I never want to have two different personas — one for the public eye, and then a private. On social media, what you see is exactly what you get. Digital content has allowed me to love myself even more.
Prashad plans to continue in the industry for the foreseeable future. She recognizes the impact of being an Indo Caribbean woman at the forefront of media and defines her success as “…I can continue to represent my culture and how I make others feel.” Her best moments are connecting with others through their lived experiences and offering a different lens on growing up in Canada.
How did you feel breaking into the industry as a woman of color?
What a great feeling that was, and even better, being an Indo Caribbean woman. I went through my fair share of hardships. I’ve faced racism, sexism and bullying throughout my journey of getting to where I am today. But, I have stood up for myself every single time. I will never allow myself to be walked all over. And believe me, people have attempted MANY times. But I pick myself back up and continue along my way.
I think it really hit me that I was making an impact when I started to hear from people how much they related to my childhood stories, the way I was brought up, the movies I watched as a kid. It’s those moments that made me realize I accomplished my goal.
How has your background influenced your interest in hosting and digital content production?
I never saw people like me in the media growing up. I always wanted to change that. I didn’t feel that I had anyone I could personally connect with when I watched TV. And to me that was always so mind blowing because the media, although so broad, is such a personal industry.
I have always been proud to say on air that I’m a Guyanese woman. I have made it a point to fight for more Caribbean content on air. I’ve made it a point to share stories about my family, where they came from, and even the experiences I’ve had growing up in a Guyanese family. Promoting Caribbean culture in general has always been important to me. And progress has been made! At my previous radio job, I pushed incredibly hard to start interviewing Caribbean artists and to highlight them. I had the opportunity to interview artists like Sean Paul, Kes and Konshensand those interviews aired nationally which was massive.
Prashad often infuses cultural content into her work by showcasing Indian and Caribbean food, offering Bollywood movie recommendations, detailing her trips to Guyana, talking about new music and sharing information about Caribbean events in Toronto. She does not believe that cultural content needs to be pared down for the masses but instead advocates for aspiring Indo Caribbean creators to keep releasing diverse and authentic content that is representative of themselves.
She notes that the Indo Caribbean experience is not a monolith and that,
We need more representation! What feels most authentic to you can be vastly different from other content creators. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way of creating content, but the best version of content you’re going to create is when you’re being true to who you are, and having fun.
At only 27 years old, Prashad’s journey has taken her across multiple forms of media. From interviewing Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities to hosting various television shows and being an online and radio voice, she continues to explore different mediums as a means of storytelling and connection. Hardships were plenty during Prashad’s rise to fame, but a steady belief in herself and a willingness to take on new endeavors with authenticity have provided her the grit to overcome challenges.
Prashad is eagerly awaiting to leap into her next digital venture and is actively commending more Indo Caribbean content creators to step into the spotlight with their own personal stories.
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!