Directed by Iram Haq, What Will People Say is not just another movie that portrays emotional abuse but the gut-wrenching drama of inter-generational and cross-cultural conflicts in a Pakistani immigrant family. It is a story that resonates to scores of diaspora teens.
16-year-old Nisha is an ideal daughter to traditionalist parents who own a local store in Norway, but her other foot is in a different world where she blends perfectly with her Norwegian friends at school and the late-night parties that she sneaks out to. Her day-to-day struggles involve being asked to wear more appropriate clothes, a strict curfew, and no boys.
This film portrays the first-hand experience of Iram Haq – the director herself. It has an appropriate name, as societal judgment looms large throughout it, while the title is also a commonly-used phrase in most of the subcontinent and one that represents the oppressive patriarchal values being compelled on daughters by the means of this jibe.
However, Nisha’s attempt at keeping her two worlds together yet separate comes crashing down when she is caught with a red-haired boy by her otherwise loving father, whereupon she is manipulated into going back to Pakistan to become ‘cultured’ at her father’s sister’s. The movie sensitively focuses on the strong chains of “honor” that Nisha, and her father, remain shackled to. It treads on a thin path, showing empathy towards the parents’ motivations, but not excusing their unfair behavior.
Betrayal by her father, enculturation by her paternal aunt, and manipulation by the aunt’s husband into burning her passport traumatize her intensely. Nisha’s identity crisis is further distressed by her Pakistani classmates who remind her that the culture she was to explore was not her parents but her own. She seeks comfort in her cousin Amir’s admiration. When he makes a move on her, she reciprocates it but they end up being harassed by the police while sneaking out late at night giving way to the aunt’s turn to close doors on her.
On their return to the airport, they take a detour and her father asks her to jump off a mountain. The scene ends with both of them crying. Things are not easier back home either, where her mother continually belittles her, she is made to change schools, and unallowed to go out or dress in anything but shalwar kameez. Her parents decide to marry her off to a doctor in Canada who refuses to let her study further. Her family, who previously wanted her to become a successful doctor, abandon all her aspirations to protect their remaining honor and shut people’s judgemental whispers. This happens to be her last straw and she runs away while her father watches her from behind his window.
The film is not just a feminist one, it shows the dynamics of a father-daughter relationship which is overshadowed by cultural expectations. Moreover, it portrays the internal conflicts of the father who is unable to process the events. While their struggles are worth appreciation, her parents fail to understand that she cannot remain uninfluenced by the culture around them. We know friends, acquaintances, and people in their circles who happen to have faced similar situations; sent back home to get encultured, threatened to be married off to villagers, or even killed. These are traumas our generation carries on its shoulders. While Nisha found her escape through Norwegian Child Welfare and happened to escape her abusive family, most girls do not get this chance.