Pakistani-Norwegian actress, writer, and director Iram Haq follows up her 2013 debut, the deeply personal I Am Yours, about a single mother’s disconnection from her parents, with another personal and heart-wrenching drama, What Will People Say. When she was fourteen, Haq was kidnapped by her parents in Norway and sent back to Pakistan to live with relatives, deprived of the freedoms she was accustomed to in Scandinavia. In What Will People Say, Maria Mozhdah, in her film debut, gives a powerful performance as Nisha, a teenager caught between her non-Pakistani friends in Norway and the old, fundamentalist ways of her parents and community. At his birthday party, her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), seems like a good guy, but when he catches Nisha in her bedroom with Daniel (Isak Lie Harr) — they were merely talking, contemplating kissing — he assumes the worst. Believing the family has been disgraced, he takes Nisha, who was considering becoming a doctor, back to an impoverished Pakistani village to live with her aunt (Sheeba Chaddha) and uncle (Lalit Parimoo), where she will essentially be their servant. But when the police see her kissing her cousin Amir (Rohit Saraf) in the street, the family’s added humiliation leads Mirza to consider taking even more extreme action against his confused and desperate daughter.
What Will People Say is a brutal, gripping look at identity and assimilation in contemporary society, which is particularly relevant in regard to the current migrant and refugee crisis in America and around the world. In many ways, Nisha is the ideal daughter, a smart, sweet, attractive, and caring young woman with a promising future. In fact, her mother (Ekavali Khanna) and father are as proud of her as they are of her older brother, Asif (Ali Arfan), who is also studying to be a doctor. But the frightening difference in the treatment of boys and girls becomes quickly evident when it involves any kind of sexuality in a society that still arranges marriages for their children. Nisha doesn’t understand why her parents are being so abusive to her, especially because, as she repeats over and over, she has done nothing wrong. But she is also unable to tell the Norwegian authorities what is happening to her, fearing further harsh treatment at the hands of her family, unwilling to betray them. The film is reminiscent of Abdullah Oğuz’s 2007 Turkish drama Bliss (Mutuluk), in which a seventeen-year-old girl is raped and her village demands that she be executed in an honor killing. A coproduction of Norway, Germany, and Sweden and told in Norwegian and Urdu, What Will People Say is a difficult film to watch; you keep wanting Misha to speak out and fight back, but the fear of reprisal is so ingrained in her that she is virtually helpless, as old-fashioned, outdated values are hard to break away from even in the modern-day world.