Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) is a young Pakistani woman, living in Oslo with her strict and traditional family. Although she follows the rules and appears to be an obedient and dutiful daughter at home, outside the confines of the house, Nisha behaves more like a western girl, hanging out with boys, experimenting and exploring the world around her. When her father catches her with a boy in her room, Nisha is taken to Pakistan against her will, in order to learn what it truly means to be Pakistani, and what her parents expect from her.
Screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, What Will People Say is a story of conflict; conflict between the past and the present, between east and west, and between parents and their children. The feeling that pervades the entire film is one of paranoia; the parents believe that everyone is talking about them, and the appearance they give to the outside world is the one they will be judged on, and this judgement seems to be more important than the happiness of the family within the home.
Maria Mozhdah plays Nisha as a wilful character, one who her parents seem to believe is trouble incarnate, but to the minds of the audience, Nisha’s wants and will feel pretty tame and normal, but this is where the conflict in the film arises. Mozhdah allows the audience to root for Nisha, and therefore making her parents seem like the unreasonable ones. There is a charm to Mozhdah’s performance that is hard to deny, and it is this that makes the film engaging and strong. The rest of the cast features Adil Hussain, Ekavali Khanna, Rohit Saraf, Ali Arfan and Sheeba Chaddha.
Iram Haq’s screenplay tells a story that has been told in cinema before; the clash of cultures within the same family – Catch Me Daddy and La Haine spring to mind – and the film feels relevant in the wake of so many recent stories of honour killings in Pakistan, including YouTube star Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered by her brother last year. Haq excels in making Nisha feel like a character we all know in our lives, and this is what makes the film work, as well as making the audience root for the character. The rest of the story of a cautionary tale, both for the children of immigrants who want to hold on to their own cultures, but also for the parents who often drive their children away.
As director Haq makes What Will People Say a thoughtful and thought provoking film, and excels in showing off the minor differences in cultures that lead to extreme actions. There are times when the film feels as though it is dragging its heels, and taking too much time to revel in the differences between cultures, but it soon becomes clear that every small action leads to the feeling of the whole.
In all, What Will People Say is a story of paranoia and survival, conflict and peace, and past and present. Iram Haq tells a powerful and relevant story in a time of honour killings becoming more prevalent, and women struggling for equality across the world. Maria Mozhdah is a true find, and although there are times when ‘What Will People Say’ feels familiar, the film is rewarding and engaging, and definitely worth watching.