Film Review: What Will People Say

A Westernized Pakistani teen is put through the ringer by her family in this well-crafted film that’s often difficult to watch.
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Ostensibly a drama filmed with European realism, What Will People Say has the air and the unsettling effect of a horror film. It’s one thing after another for 16-year-old Nisha (an excellent Maria Mozhdah), a Pakistani living with her conservative family in Norway. Nisha just wants to have fun with friends and boys her own age, but what Western audiences (and the filmmaker) might consider a “harmless” good time is enough to turn Nisha’s loving family into tyrants, capable of horror-movie behavior: kidnapping, threats, bodily harm, and psychological abuse on a ruinous level. That the story is based on writer-director Iram Haq’s own experiences as a 14-year-old who was kidnapped by her parents and sent to live in Pakistan makes it all the more disquieting.

Haq’s film takes its time establishing Nisha’s Western-European-normal life in Norway: the group of friends with whom she hangs out, and which she must routinely ditch in order to make family obligations at home…only to see once again when she sneaks out of her bedroom at night. Even many liberals must consider Nisha’s behavior in the beginning of the movie reckless, even delinquent. But when Nisha’s father (Life of Pi’s Adil Hussain) punches the 16-year-old kid caught kissing Nisha in her bedroom, the film claims us unequivocally for Nisha’s camp. Nothing she does from here on out, however irresponsible, warrants the consequences she suffers.

And suffer, she does. The first of these consequences is the kidnapping of Nisha from Child Services by her father and older brother, the aspiring doctor/golden child to Nisha’s shameless whore. Lured by false promises of a happy homecoming, Nisha willingly enters their car. But they do not let her escape, even going so far as to chase her down the shoulder of a busy highway when she flees while they’re stopped in traffic. Finally, Nisha and her father arrive in Pakistan. Nisha is left in the care of her aunt and uncle, who make her do chores and submit to their harsh discipline. Locking Nisha up alone and burning her passport are among their punitive measures.

After several months, Nisha, though less vibrant, seems to have settled into the rhythm of life in Islamabad. It helps that a looker named Amir is there to comfort her when she cries—and sneak out with her to steal kisses on the street at dark. The penalty for this adolescent behavior is high, however. Shockingly, disgustingly, maddeningly high. In disgrace once again, Nisha is shuttled back to Norway for a few final indignities. (How she manages the journey without her passport is left unexplained.)

From the very first sequence of the film—in which Nisha is seen running home to climb into bed before her father makes his nightly rounds to check on her—to the final moment between father and daughter, Haq does not ease up on the suspense, or never for very long. A score with a pulsing beat and a shooting style that favors close-ups of Nisha’s distraught face add to the sense of unraveling, spur the impulse to hold your breath or lace your fingers before your eyes. The tension almost reaches its breaking point when Nisha is caught with Amir on the street at night, the moment when her reality becomes truly indistinguishable from horror.

Given the success with which this sense of horror is conveyed, the “love” aspect of Haq’s stated desire to tell an “impossible love story between parents and their child” grows progressively muffled, as we work toward what she says “cannot [be] a happy ending as long as the gap between these cultures remains so wide.” Indeed, What Will People Say is not an ambiguous film: The point of view shows clearly who is right and who is wrong, and does not make much of a case for the grey areas between cultures. Doubt, eventually, appears on the face of Nisha’s father, but it is never enough to raise doubts about his actions. Other Westerners like me—caught, as everyone is caught, in the thick bubbles of our cultures—might find that What Will People Say has been too unsparing in its layering of Nisha’s suffering for them to feel for anyone but her. Which may be at one and the same time a triumph and a limitation of the film.