Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), in the extraordinary new film “What Will People Say,” is a 16-year-old girl who lives on the outskirts of Oslo with her tightknit Pakistani immigrant family. It’s not clear when they emigrated, but regardless, Nisha’s memories are only of Norway.
At home, she is a dutiful, old-school daughter. Hidden away from her family’s prying eyes, she is a typical disco-dancing teenager, complete with a doting red-headed boyfriend. When he sneaks into her bedroom through an open window at night and they engage in some chaste smooching, Nisha’s father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), a shopkeeper who has sacrificed much for his family, walks in on them, assumes the worst, and pummels the boy.
From this point on, Nisha’s fate is set. Her father kidnaps her and takes her to live with his extended clan in Pakistan, where it is expected she will embrace the traditional ways and expunge the shame she has brought upon her family. She goes from the chilly grayness of Norway to the sunbaked enclaves of Pakistan.
Iram Haq, the writer-director, is a Pakistani woman who grew up in Norway and endured an experience similar to Nisha’s when she was 14. This may explain why the movie has such bite and urgency. The sense of entrapment that Nisha feels is as palpable as it would be in any horror movie. In a sense, this is what “What Will People Say” is – a real-life terror trip but with human ghouls and goblins. Except that Haq does something quite complicated and, given her own past experience, almost heroic: She gives Mirza and his family their due.
Although I thought that, given the film’s overall humanistic temper, they were portrayed perhaps a shade too unfeelingly, it is always clear from scene to scene why Nisha’s family members act as they do. It is not just their own disgrace they are trying to eliminate. They want Nisha to live the life she was born into because that is what will make her happy – even if she is too young and too Westernized to realize it. (The film would have been stronger if Nisha had demonstrated some conflicted, deep-set attraction to the ways of her ancestors as well.)
I hope no one will mistake this movie for some sort of demonstration of the unassimilationist mind-set of immigrants relocating to the West. The cultural divide in this movie is starkly presented, but so are the aspirations of youths like Nisha. (And her family is not so old-school that they don’t encourage her to become a doctor.) The movie is as much about generational conflicts as it is about religio-cultural divisions. It’s significant that Nisha’s Pakistani allies are almost all her own age or younger. (Her little cousin wants to know what she thinks of Rihanna.) Whether the elders in this movie accept it or not, their offspring, and their liberalized attitudes, are the coming order.
The repeated refrain we hear from Nisha is “I didn’t do anything wrong,” and Mozhdah, with her powerfully expressive features, turns it into a plaintive wail. She says it when her father explodes into her room, and she says it again when she attempts to wriggle out of the confines of her family in Pakistan. Her aunt and uncle respond by threatening to marry her off to a “peasant.”
It’s a measure of the film’s evenhandedness that the dangers Nisha faces as a Westernized girl in Pakistan are not played down. Despite their vehemence, her aunt and uncle are not wrong in attempting to shield her. In the film’s most harrowing scene, Nisha and her cousin, who is sweet on her, abscond for a late-night stroll and, as they kiss, are set upon by the local police, who strip and humiliate them, threatening to blackmail their family with incriminating nude photos. For Nisha, and her Pakistani family, this abasement is the final outrage and prompts her return to Norway, with Mirza again standing guard.
Although the role may not have been written with great depth, Hussain’s performance as Mirza is richly layered. The severity of his actions, which include a harrowing cliffside sequence as he brings Nisha back with him from Pakistan, is belied by his sorrowful eyes. Clearly he loves his daughter and he is aghast both at her supposed wrongdoing and, even more so, by the indignities he is capable of committing against her. On some barely apprehended level, he surely must sympathize with Nisha’s ache for freedom, or else why did he sacrifice so much to bring his family to Norway at all? In the end, he is as riven as she is. Grade: A- (This movie is not rated.)