Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), the 16-year-old daughter of a Pakistani family living in Norway, has a foot in two different worlds. In one, she can be a typical Western teenager who goes to high school, enjoys hanging out with her friends, playing sports, and dancing, and is sweet on a boy she hasn’t told her parents about. In the other, she is subject to the same expectations and restrictions she would have faced had her family never left Pakistan—and in this other world, her father holds absolute power over her and she is constantly judged not only by her relatives but by the community at large.
Nisha’s father Mirza (Adil Hussain) clearly dotes on his daughter, overlooking minor transgression like coming home late and encouraging her to dream big and claim her place in the world. Early in the film, he brags to his friends that she can become whatever she wants, like a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. But when he discovers a boy in her room, that crosses an invisible line and flips a switch in him, so that he becomes a furious, scorned patriarch. He beats the boy, but has something much worse in mind for Nisha—she is kidnapped, taken to a small town in Pakistan, and deposited with relatives who are even more doctrinaire than her own parents.
I’m sure some American viewers will greet this turn of events with disbelief, but they really need to broaden their horizons. Not only do such things happen, they happened to Iram Haq, the film’s director, who has spoken about how she used her experiences in this film. The dangers Nisha faces in Pakistan are real—she has no resources of her own, there are no kind social workers (as there are is Oslo) willing to help her, and when her aunt and uncle threaten to marry her off to a peasant if she doesn’t shape up, she knows they’re not just speaking metaphorically.
The film’s title was chosen with care, because community judgement looms large in this film, whether in a village in Pakistan or in the expat community of Oslo. It’s also a constant refrain when Nisha is criticized, and clearly the shunning of Nisha’s family when she returns to Oslo is deeply felt by all concerned. Mirza, the most humanized character after Nisha, is also caught between two worlds and clearly suffers because of what he feels he must do to his daughter, but opts for tradition and authoritarianism rather than adapting to the Western society to which he has moved his family.
The conflict between a rule-bound community and a member who doesn’t fit in has served as the basis for numerous films, including Disobedience (2017) and Menashe (2017), both of which are set in the world of orthodox Judaism, and Novitiate (2017), which is set in a convent. What Will People Say does a better job than any of those films at portraying the cultural richness, beauty and joy of the closed community, conveying the important message that just because one character has a conflict with this community doesn’t mean it’s a horrible place or one in which no one is happy.
What Will People Say ends ambiguously, so we don’t know exactly what the future holds for Nisha or her family. We get a good sense of the director’s intent, however, by the fact that this film is bookended by shots of Nisha running–but where she’s running to, and why, make all the difference. | Sarah Boslaugh