‘Upskirting wasn’t just pervs on the Tube’: Jemima Khan on tabloid culture, her debut romcom and Princess Diana
Jemima Khan has been asked some rather personal questions in her time. While on the promotional trail for her first feature film, the charming romcom What’s Love Got to Do with It?, which she wrote and produced, a few Australian radio DJs threw her some zingers. “Literally, one of them asked me about the difference in pillow talk between [her ex-boyfriend] Russell Brand and [her ex-husband] Imran Khan,” she says, eyebrows raised. A quote from her father, the late financier Sir James Goldsmith, springs to mind: “I live for the day when people like you choke on your own vomit.” And yet Khan remained unruffled. “Don’t ask me what I answered, but I think I did what I always do – sort of laughed it off, and then made a joke of it, which is our tendency as women, isn’t it?”
By her own admission, she has faced far worse. “Nothing really compares to the scrutiny I faced as a politician’s wife in Pakistan with a Jewish background. Frankly, anything after that feels easy.” Her dramatic early adulthood – she married the retired playboy cricketer Imran Khan on the cusp of his entry into Pakistani politics when she was just 21 – saw her thrown in at the deep end in terms of her public profile. Intense interest in her later relationships with Brand and Hugh Grant paled in comparison.
Since that time, Khan has built a politically conscious body of work as a journalist and documentary maker. Back in 1999, though, she was threatened with jail on the fabricated charge of exporting antique tiles illegally, which she said was designed to damage Imran (the couple divorced in 2004). Having spent 10 years in Pakistan, she notes: “There’s not really any recourse there.” She explains further, relaying in two minutes an anecdote that could make a two-hour feature film. “When a fake cheque from my father was printed for a billion dollars, supposedly funding my ex-husband’s – brackets, wildly unsuccessful – political campaign to supposedly further the Zionist cause, when my father hadn’t ever been to Israel and certainly wasn’t funding the Zionists’ cause or giving Imran any money… I was told, very clearly, you can’t sue. Just leave it. We don’t sue here.”
Having to learn to be resilient so quickly could turn a person hard, but Khan, curled up in a chair and wearing a sharp burgundy velvet Bella Freud suit offset by comfy trainers, is warm, unembittered. That was all politics, she shrugs. “I separate that from the reaction I’ve had from Pakistanis generally, which was almost exclusively warm, hospitable, kind and loving. I still get that today – I actually can’t believe that I still get so much love and acceptance from Pakistanis,” she says. Judging by What’s Love Got to Do with It?, her time there has left an indelible imprint upon her. The film follows Zoe, a documentary maker and singleton played by Lily James, who convinces her best friend Kaz (Shazad Latif) to let her chronicle his journey towards an arranged marriage.
Directed by Shekhar Kapur, it is both a hymn to Lahore and a distillation of what Khan learnt in those years. The film thoughtfully explores what different cultures can teach each other, and how relationships can follow different models. At one point, Kaz explains that the process by which parents select a spouse for their child is now described as an “assisted” marriage, rather than “arranged”, to which Zoe responds, “What, like assisted suicide?” But Khan has seen many arranged marriages that have worked, which taught her that it’s possible for relationships to “simmer then boil”.
“I’ve seen it happen, that people haven’t started with love, but they’ve ended with love,” she explains. During her time in Pakistan, she lived with Imran’s family for five years and saw his sisters, nieces and nephews have successful unions. “I watched it happen in real time and up close, and it was quite romantic, and that was unexpected to me.”
It also made her consider how arranged marriages were “the norm” in royal circles for a long time, but never described as such. In one scene, Charles and Diana’s disastrous engagement interview is carefully mirrored, right down to the infamous “whatever ‘in love’ means” quote. (In fact, Khan wanted to call the film Whatever Love Means, but the studio thought it too downbeat.) Khan was a close friend of Princess Diana, spending time with her in Pakistan during the Nineties. “Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage was pretty much arranged, to all intents and purposes,” she says, although she won’t be drawn on the modern-day royal “love marriage” between Meghan and Harry.
Khan’s cut-glass vowels are a reminder that she hails from the upper echelons; her brother Zac Goldsmith is now in the House of Lords, while her mother, Lady Annabel, gave her name to a nightclub (the once notorious Annabel’s). The film has been a passion project, 12 years on and off in the writing, around Khan’s full-time work running her production company, Instinct. “There were quite a few times where I kind of gave up,” she admits.
We’re speaking at the offices of StudioCanal, who are distributing the film; such locations can make interviews feel stuffy and uninspiring – but not today. “Turn around and have a look behind you,” Khan says, a sparkle in her eye. A vigorous exercise class seems to be happening in the building opposite. “There’s some quite enthusiastic pelvic thrusting going on over there!” she says, bursting into laughter. Khan gives the sense of being a “Look at that!” person, ready to spot things that will make her friends giggle, or whisper something gossipy in your ear. The kind of person you could concoct plans with, too – as she did on the way back from a holiday with a girlfriend. The pair made a deal, on the return flight home, that they would each write a film; at the premiere, her friend reminded her of the conversation.
Friendship is the foundation of Zoe and Kaz’s story in What’s Love Got to Do with It?, and Khan has very good friends, too. When I say the film made me think of brilliant British films such as Bend It Like Beckham, she shows me a picture of its director, Gurinder Chadha, screaming with delight at a poster of What’s Love… on the side of a bus. At a mention of my love for Mamma Mia 2, she squeals that she wants to tell its director and writer, Ol Parker, straight away. Parker was one of the first people to see the script for What’s Love, and encouraged her through many drafts. “I genuinely don’t think I would have had the confidence to keep going if it hadn’t been for Ol Parker,” she says. “When I first showed him, my self-esteem was a bit shot, and he read it and was really lovely.”
Has she had better friends than partners? “Friends, for me, have been as important as family and romantic relationships. Definitely. One hundred per cent,” she says adamantly. “My friendships have become really very important to me in my life since returning from Pakistan – where, of course, I was cut off from a lot of them, as it wasn’t easy to stay in touch. It was really expensive to call the UK, so I couldn’t keep in touch on the phone.”
She also thinks, as her film explores, that it is possible to be pragmatic about love. “It does no harm – particularly if one has been brought up on a diet of romcom,” she smiles. Talking about the film, Emma Thompson, who is hilarious as Zoe’s mother, has said that “romantic love is a myth”. But the film is full of yearning, too. Khan believes it is possible to balance passion with practicality. “Both are extremes. I’m a very kind of middle-way person, and somewhere in the middle lies probably what you want to be aiming for.”
It’s much easier to reach that conclusion, though, once you’ve been through real pain and heartbreak. Someone asked Khan if she thought it was a sign of the times that the characters in her film seem to be quite reticent about love. “I don’t think it’s that – I think it’s a sign that they’re in their thirties, not their twenties. I think, as you accumulate experiences, you learn to be a little more guarded and reticent.”
As well as her loyal friends, Khan has two sons, Suleiman and Kasim, and a stepdaughter, Tyrian, from Imran’s previous relationship with the late Sita White. To Khan’s delight, they loved the film. “I genuinely think they were ready to lie and say they loved it when they didn’t, because they knew how much effort I put into it,” she admits. In the event, she could tell their reactions were truthful. “I remember thinking in that moment: I have to hold on to this, because whatever happens, this is a high point. My children have loved it, and those that are very, very close to me. I have to remember this when I’m really scared of what the outcome will be.”
Given her time in Pakistan, Khan has been asked many times if the film is autobiographical – it’s not – and I wonder if the question annoys her. “I think it’s true to say that question gets asked to female writers more than male writers,” she notes. Zoe, she points out, has devoted her life to her career, while Khan was married at 21 and soon had two young children. That strikes me, now, as astonishingly young. “It was very young. In fact, when people ask me how old my children are, I leave a little pause afterwards. And if they don’t say, ‘Gosh, that can’t be possible,’ I’m genuinely a little put out,” she says with a hoot. “Because I’ve got kids who are 23 and 26, I can’t lie about my age – which is really annoying, because all my contemporaries lie. And they all say they’re younger than me, and I feel furious when I then have to lie for them but tell the truth about my own age.”
Since founding Instinct Productions in 2015, Khan has been building a body of zeitgeisty, intelligent documentaries. From The Case Against Adnan Syed, about the imprisoned protagonist of the Serial podcast, to documentary The Clinton Affair and later ten-part drama Impeachment, Khan has been drawn to the stories we think we already know, casting them in a new light.
In light of Syed’s recent release from prison after 23 years, a new episode of the show will be released this year. Khan believes the conviction of American-Pakistani Syed, aged 17, for murdering his ex-girlfriend, was a result of Islamophobia. “One so-called cultural expert testified in court that Muslims do honour killings when they break up with their girlfriends. There was no DNA linking him, no motive. I had a son exactly that age, who was British Pakistani – and I thought, the same thing could happen to him.” Likewise, upon meeting Monica Lewinsky, she became aware of distinct personal parallels – both had been threatened with jail at the same age, “and we had both been used as political pawns by the opposition”.
Given the time and commitment they take to develop, she chooses each project carefully. “I have to be really drawn to the subject matter – it has to hit me somewhere quite personally for me to want to invest so much time in it.” In 2021, Khan said that, after being asked to co-write episodes for the fifth series of The Crown, she had severed links because the story was not being told “as respectfully or compassionately” as she had hoped – something she prefers not to elaborate on today. It leads me to wonder if she would ever make a film about her friend Diana, but she has no plans.
“I don’t think I would ever feel comfortable doing so without the involvement or blessing of her sons and Hasnat Khan,” she explains. The British-Pakistani heart surgeon was in a relationship with Diana during the final two years of her life, 1995 to 1997, although he later told an inquest that the former royal had ended the relationship in the summer before she died. “It’s complicated telling the real stories of people who are either still alive or whose loved ones are alive,” Khan says. “And one of the reasons why we felt comfortable making a series about the Lewinsky/Clinton story was because Monica was involved in the telling of that, both creatively and financially.”