“What Will People Say,” a film by the Norwegian-Pakistani director Iram Haq, tells a powerful story that may be shocking as well. The movie is an act of furious protest against the attitudes of patriarchal Pakistani families – whose traditional repressive values are at odds with those of Western countries to which they have migrated – toward their daughters.
But Haq makes a mistake typical of films of this sort, emphasizing the power of the story over its subtleties. She presents the story in a formulaic, tendentious manner, not allowing its human and ideological complexities to shine through. Nearly every scene in the film, for which she also wrote the screenplay, revisits the message she seeks to deliver. This makes the movie didactic and schematic, and detracts from its intellectual and emotional effectiveness.
Set in Norway, this is the story of 16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), the daughter of a Pakistani family, who behaves like every other Western adolescent when outside her home. She goes to clubs, has a few drinks, even uses light drugs, and then hurries to change out of her relatively revealing clothes and going home so she can be in bed before curfew – which is when her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), goes from room to room to see if all his children are present and safe in their beds.
Nisha seems to navigate her double life well: Her relationship with her father is well-balanced and her mother (Ekavali Khanna) grants her greater freedom than does her father. But then, one night, Nisha’s boyfriend, Daniel (Isak Lie Harr), sneaks into her room.
The two only intend to make out a little, but Mirza bursts into his daughter’s room, physically attacks her and beats Daniel to a pulp. Despite the agitated Nisha’s denials, he is certain that the two have had sex, and that if Nisha has in fact lost her virginity, she is no longer worthy of any husband that he might choose for her.
Following the tumult, Nisha is cast out and becomes a ward of the state’s social services. But in a telephone call, Mirza tells her he is prepared to accept her back into his home, and subsequently arrives to pick her up, along with his son Asif (Ali Arfan) – who is subject to the absolute authority of his father.
Nisha is sure that family order has been restored, but Mirza’s apology is merely a ruse, and in the course of the drive home the daughter realizes that the route is leading to the airport.
The astounded Nisha is sent to Pakistan; she has never been there and has never met the members of her family who live there. Mirza considers his daughter’s dispatch to Pakistan not necessarily as a punishment, but rather as an attempt to reeducate her.
The West, however, has already reached Pakistan: On Nisha’s first night in the country, her young cousin asks her whom she likes better, Rihanna or Beyoncé. Nevertheless, within the family, the traditional brand of repression dominates.
The attitude of her aunt (Sheeba Chaddha) and uncle (Lalit Parimoo) toward Nisha is even more rigid than that of her parents. And when they discover that Nisha has tried to send her friends a request for help via the internet, the aunt locks her in a closet and the uncle burns her passport. Nisha is sent off to a school for girls where the students wear traditional dress – there is an effective shot in which the girls are filmed as a single body, in which you cannot tell one from another. When she is not studying, she is forced to work cleaning the school building.
Story and message
From this point on, the plot develops from one brutal scene to the next. After Nisha gets into trouble again, the young woman simply refuses to submit to her fate. Her father brings her back to Norway, and the story reaches its climax in the most effective shot of the film – one that deviates from the realistic tone that had prevailed throughout, and which contains a measure of ambivalence and symbolism.
I won’t say any more so as not to reveal the entire story, but this is essentially everything to be found in Haq’s movie: story and message. This makes it easier to respond to the film, which sweeps us from one shattering event to the next, but it prevents us from delving into a deeper, multidimensional tale.
The film raises the question of whether a work whose subject focuses on significant ethnic, social and cultural issues – in which West and East, progress, conservative values and diverse ethnic origins are jumbled and in collision with one another – is necessarily important. The answer is, of course, no.
It is not the subject that determines the value of a film, but the way it is treated. And in that respect, Haq’s picture fails. We have already seen films dealing with the repression of women in a conservative society, along with the other issues raised here, albeit with greater complexity.
This movie is fundamentally a melodrama, and its melodramatic nature dominates it to such an extent that it does not express itself in an intelligent and critical fashion.
None of this is helped by the music, which tends toward the bombastic, and which underscores the salient high points of the movie. As a result, even the tendentious side of the film is found lacking, and the message is not conveyed in a complex manner.
Nisha’s tyrannical aunt and uncle seem to have been lifted from a cruel fairy tale. If Haq had any intention of shaping her film as an updated story of that kind, and incorporating irony into the film’s critical nature – the movie’s title may testify to such an intention – she failed to achieve her goal in any adequate way.
The actors fill their roles as expected in their predetermined place within the plot – Mozhdah in the role of Nisha is meant to touch our hearts, and she does so, successfully. However, when any of the characters is asked to present a more nuanced facet of the role, the outcome seems forced.
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