This second feature from Norwegian writer/director Iram Haq is a searing exploration of the implications for young people in trying to balance familial and cultural expectations with the desire to experience, and engage with, the wider world in which they live. It is a film that should leave you seething in anger at the way a teenage girl has her freedom, dignity and self-respect stripped away for no reason other than to service her parents’ pathological obsession with their own reputation within the Norway’s Pakistani community. Relentlessly upsetting in its refusal to compromise, What Will People Say draws attention to pressures facing immigrant families trying to stem the tide of cultural dilution and cling to traditional beliefs and value systems, often in a society that is far removed – culturally, politically and geographically – from what they have previously known. In this instance, these anxieties are directed at 16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), who finds herself subjected to some horrendous treatment in the name of saving the family from social ostracism.
For Nisha though, life in Norway is all she has ever known and, whilst at home she speaks Urdu and diligently attends to her schoolwork with the expectation that she will become a doctor, away from the scrutiny of her family she leads a relatively typical Westernised teen life; hanging with friends, drinking, smoking a little weed and sneaking out at night to let her hair down (both literally and figuratively). To the casual observer, Nisha is every bit the assimilated ideal, indistinguishable from her Norwegian friends and seemingly successful in straddling two different worlds. However, Nisha’s parallel lives collapse into chaos when her father Mirza (Adil Hussain) discovers a boy in Nisha’s room late one night. Refusing to believe that nothing untoward had taken place between Nisha and her visitor, Mirza is adamant that her behaviour has brought shame to the family and delivers Nisha to Pakistan to live under the strict surveillance of her aunt and uncle.
Not surprisingly, Nisha struggles to adapt to life in a culture that is far removed from anything she has experienced before and, when a budding romantic relationship with Amir (Rohit Saraf) is exposed, Nisha again finds herself cast aside and Mirza is summoned to collect her. Making it quite clear that he would rather Nisha was dead than have to face the humiliation of bringing her back to Norway, Mirza is one of the more despicable characters you will encounter on screen and, whilst his treatment of Nisha – abetted by his wife Najma (Ekavali Khanna) and son Asif (Ali Arfan) – seems extreme in its cruelty and unreasonableness, What Will People Say serves as a timely reminder that too many young women remain subjected to archaic customs and belief systems that perpetuate misogyny and oppression. That is not to say that religious and cultural diversity should not be encouraged and respected, however in this case Mirza’s cruelty is driven entirely by his own fragile ego and a fear of losing the respect of friends and neighbours.
Mozhdah is yet another example of the talent that exists beyond the familiar faces of Hollywood and she delivers a remarkably real performance as a young woman stripped of her dignity and regarded as nothing more than a burden whose only path to atonement is absolute obedience and marriage to a complete stranger, despite the best efforts of the Norwegian child welfare authorities in trying to intervene. It’s likely that What Will People Say will leave you shocked, mesmerised and angry but it is most definitely worth your time. Even though some moments are hard to watch, it is an important film about injustice and oppression with an ending that, whilst ambiguous, leaves you with some hope that Nisha can escape the constraints of familial fanaticism and find herself a place in the world.