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Exploring the balancing act of maintaining traditional values in a liberal country

Pakistani-origin director Iram Haq puts together an intense narrative of young girls from immigrant groups, who perform a balancing act between their families and their aspirations.

entertainment Updated: Sep 17, 2017 07:25 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Iram Haq, director of the Norwegian film What Will People Say, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Iram Haq, director of the Norwegian film What Will People Say, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.(Courtesy TIFF)

Caught between two solitudes, that of the tradition of the old country and liberal values of adopted homes in the West, young girls from immigrant groups face the pressure of performing a balancing act between their families and their aspirations.

Their parents, meanwhile, face social censure within their community if their daughters rebel. And such action turns into a matter of honour, sometimes with violent consequences. Or, the fear of, as the title of the Norwegian film puts it, What Will People Say.

Director Iram Haq, who is of Pakistani origin, puts together an intense narrative of just that struggle, between a teenaged girl, Nisha, and her father, Mirza, after he discovers her making out with a Norwegian boy. She is literally bundled off, kicking and protesting, to her relatives in a small town in Pakistan, where her passport is burned and she is held prisoner.

Haq wanted to explore the issue of “social control” in these culture clashes. It was also a deeply personal project for her because of her own background:. “For me, it’s an important subject to talk about: How society puts young people down and how important it is to have free voices, to have a free life and free choices, to be who we are,” she said.

A scene from Iram Haq’s What Will People Say, which was set in Pakistan but filmed in India. The movie had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Courtesy TIFF)

Given the current anti-immigrant sentiment prevailing across Europe, she was careful not to demonise the parents, especially the father Mirza. She adopted a “nuanced” approach to the narrative, allowing for a rare insight into the pressures that otherwise loving parents face, due to the lack of integration and the fear of ostracisation.

“The Western world becomes a place that is scary for them because the only thing they have is their own communities and if they are kicked out, who are they then? So, it’s a lot about identity,” Haq mused.

But she worked not to paint this scenario in plain black and white, and chose to explore the grey areas within, including the joyful bonds within the family and how the father’s rage is tempered with an abiding affection for his daughter despite what he perceives as her transgressions.

The film’s cast delivers a strong performance. Making her debut in films is 18-year-old Afghan-origin Maria Mozhdah as Nisha, playing the role with poise beyond her years.

Haq described her as her “dream girl” when it came to casting the 16-year-old protagonist.

Maria Mozhdah plays the lead role of Nisha in What Will People Say, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Courtesy TIFF)

Mozhdah felt fortunate at the opportunity she had been provided in her maiden appearance in a movie. Mozhdah, who works as a florist outside of school, said: “I feel like I’ve bloomed while shooting this movie and this experience has made me a little bit closer to who I am and what I want to do.”

Just as powerful is the role essayed by Adil Hussein as the father, portrayed powerfully by the veteran Indian actor. Also making his presence felt is Nepali actor Rohit Saraf, who plays Amir, Nisha’s cousin in Pakistan and her love interest while she is forcibly detained there.

What Will People Say had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and may arrive in India this autumn, either at a festival or in theatres.

But just as the principal character is squeezed between two imperatives, the director herself struggled with balancing her objective for dialogue over a particular social malaise with not tarring an entire ethnic group. “This is something I am aware of. I’m not describing Pakistani or other people with similar culture, as evil. I’m trying to take up one problem, which exists and we have to talk about it,” she said.