Lahore, PAKISTAN – “What will people say?” is a phrase notorious among South Asian youth as a breaker of dreams and an abyss of hopelessness. It has so much power over us, that it doesn’t even need to be said.
Its pressure is invisible and immense.
As a girl, the consequences of the sentence are even graver. Anything that could trigger the phrase, will most certainly bring down the honor of your family and you will have to live with that. This phrase is the reason many people today, from adolescents to adults, live a double life – one for themselves and one for the family.
That having been the current state of society for decades, when a movie titled, What Will People Say comes up on your Netflix recommendations list, you don’t waste a second and start watching.
Director Iram Haq tells her own story as the movie begins with 16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), living a double life in Oslo with her Pakistani Muslim family. She hangs out with her friends, dancing, dating and doing other normal Norwegian teenage things that her parents would never approve of.
Nisha sneaks back into her family’s apartment, just in time for her father to make sure she’s tucked in and asleep. Circumstances take a dramatic turn when one night her boyfriend sneaks into her room to steal a few kisses and they are caught by her father who accuses her of sexual intercourse, which is forbidden in Islam unless you’re married.
This is something the average parents like Nisha’s can never imagine their kids doing, even if they are 28 years old.
In a fit of rage, Nisha’s father Mirza (Adil Hussain) hits her boyfriend and her, and says something that doesn’t fall short of a South Asian audience’s expectation: “I don’t want a daughter like you.”
After dealing with the child services, Nisha’s father, with the help of her obedient older brother, forcefully takes her to the airport and then to Pakistan where she is compelled to spend the rest of her days, in hopes that she will learn the Pakistani culture, its modesty and abstinence.
Unfortunately that is not how she finds it. After a few months, we find her imprisoned in her relative’s house in Quetta, quite used to the white and blue school uniform with a headscarf, and her cooking and cleaning duties.
She makes an attempt to get online and is trapped in a room by her aunt, and forced to burn her passport by her uncle who claims that she is his daughter now.
The movie – which was Norway’s nomination for an Academy Award for best foreign language film – goes on to not one, but many climatic scenes, as they show the fight between a father’s love and fear for his daughter, both of which act as motivation for him to commit acts no parent can be imagined doing.
What Will People Say explores the bittersweet relationship between parents and children, more specifically in South Asian culture and goes on to show us the most horrifying outcomes. It keeps you at the edge of your seat, so harsh you don’t want to see it, but so compelling that you can’t look away.
The whole movie was like the worst nightmare come true for girls like Nisha. It asks complicated questions along the spectrum of guilt and freedom, living a double life, and how far can rebelliousness really lead.
If that wasn’t enough, it included some of the most terrifying phrases of South Asian households, like her father saying, “I just want the best for you,” as he abandons her in Pakistan.
There is also, “Where have you been? Do you know how late it is?” and of course, “Tell your father what you did,” with an Urdu metaphor with the literal meaning, “Tell your father what sweets you’ve brought us.”
What Will People Say is forceful, triggering, and essential. It takes courage to watch this amalgamation of all things that could go wrong and it definitely required even more to make it.
Even though it brings to mind other works that tackled the issue, like Bollywood’s 2016 Lipstick Under my Burkha, the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face, and even comedian Hasan Minhaj’s take on the phrase, “what will people think” in his stand-up special, Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King.
What Will People Say is definitely the bravest of them all.
Ironically, the first thing that came to my mind when it was nominated for an Oscar, was, “Oh no … what will people say?”
The 2012 documentary Saving Face was the last time a Pakistani film made it to the Oscars. While some Pakistanis were proud to have a female figure bringing the first Oscar to Pakistan, others were enraged, saying that the film about acid attacks portrayed a bad image of Pakistan to the rest of the world.
I feared that the same would happen to this movie. After spending a few months in the United States, I now understand the consequences of media representing a “bad” image of my country.
But on the other hand, is it really a bad image if it’s true? Even if it hasn’t happened to me or many other Pakistani girls, it doesn’t change the fact that it still happens and it needs to be talked about.
Arooj Khalid is a Senior Correspondent with Youth Journalism International.