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What Will People Say review: Intense look at honour and identity clashes

Release Date: 13 Oct 2017 / 01hr 46min

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Sonal Pandya

Starring the spirted Maria Mozhdah, this Pakistani-Norwegian drama gives voice to those oppressed within their families.

Based on writer-director Iram Haq’s personal experiences, What Will People Say (Hva Vil Folk Si) is a harrowing look at the challenges South Asian children of immigrants face when they try to balance two worlds. Using fictional characters, Haq tells her own story of being taken to Pakistan against her will for a year at 14.

Nisha, played by the resilient Maria Mozhdah, is a typical teenager who lives in Oslo, Norway. She likes to hang out, dance, and have fun with friends and classmates. But at home she must hide a little bit of herself away in front of her more conservative and strict parents, played by Adil Hussain and Ekavali Khanna.

One night, a boy she likes and has been flirting with for a while sneaks into her bedroom and they are caught by her furious father. He beats the boy up and child welfare services get involved thanks to a concerned neighbour.

At first, Mirza (Hussain) wants nothing to do with Nisha, seeing as she has 'dishonoured' the family. But a disorientated Nisha, away from family, agrees to have an innocent meeting at home to sort things out. She is taken away by ferry to Germany and later taken to a whole other world, Pakistan, where her parents come from.

Nisha makes a brief attempt to escape, but it is no use. Even her brother Asif (Ali Arfan) has turned against her. In Pakistan, Mirza takes Nisha to his sister’s house which is 350km from the airport and leaves her there, amidst family who are strangers.

It is a culture shock to begin with. Nisha is unused to the lack of privacy, the invasive questions, and the oppressive heat. Her aunt (Sheeba Chaddha) makes her work in the kitchen, wash the floor, and accompany her to the market for vegetables. The one time she surreptitiously goes to message a friend on Facebook, she is beaten and locked up and her Norwegian passport is burnt in front of her eyes.

After that, a demoralized Nisha does her best to ‘behave’ as her relatives see fit and assimilate as best she can. She and her cousin Amir (Rohit Saraf) grow close romantically and sneak out of the house one night for some privacy. They are caught by the police and, in a humiliating and degrading incident, forced to strip and filmed in a lewd act. Brazenly, the police then demand Rs20,000 to ensure the video is not circulated and insist that Nisha is the 'shameless' one.

It is the last straw for the relatives who demand that Mirza take her away at once. Father and daughter have an uneasy reunion, including a traumatic moment atop a cliff where they both break down.

Back in Norway, it is a changed Nisha who returns home. Her light has been diminished. Her hair is no longer free, she ties it up in a braid. Earlier she was seen in crop tops; now she wears a salwar kameez to a new school as well.

When child welfare services check in with Nisha once again, she lies to avoid another confrontation with her family. But the last straw for her is when her marriage is arranged (via Skype) just so people will stop talking about the so-called scandal surrounding her and her family.

What Will People Say is an apt title for this courageous film. Often, in worrying about others, one forgets to live. That is true for many South Asian immigrants who live in a half-world in the country they settle in. Their longing for the motherland, coupled with a resistance of Western ways, is a recipe for disaster.

“Haven’t we sacrificed everything so you can live a better life?” Mirza screams at Nisha, while her frustrated mother Najma tells her she wishes she had been never born. Why? People have stopped inviting them to weddings as well. To see this attitude in those who live abroad is frustrating and regressive. Yet, many such cases are reported across the world.

Newcomer Maria Mozhdah is outstanding as the strong but trusting Nisha. Her world shifts beneath her feet many a time during the film and her ability to emerge out of each occasion broken but determined speaks volumes.

Adil Hussain turns from doting to menacing father and even then at the end, he shows glimpses of the character’s inner conflict and understanding of his wilful daughter whom he keeps trying to control. The rest of the mostly Indian cast (large portions of the film are shot in Rajasthan) from Sheeba Chaddha to Ekavali Khanna are wonderful.

However, for the first half of the film, the subtitles weren’t present during all the scenes because of a technical glitch. I fear I may have missed out on a few key details. Despite that, Iram Haq has chosen a powerful personal story to bring forth to the world. It will open the eyes of many who don’t fully understand.

What Will People Say was screened at the 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival on 13 October 2017.

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