Maria Mozhdah in ‘What Will People Say’
Iram Haq’s Norwegian film What Will People Say? – a literal translation of the Hindi ‘log kya kahenge‘ – is a gut-wrenching exploration of the conflict between immigrant parents and their assimilated second-generation kids, and the damage parents can cause when they refuse to let go of what they imagine to be the superior moral codes of their homeland.
Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) is a beautiful, vibrant, intelligent teenager. She’s gorgeous, with her long, lush hair, distinctive brows and spirited eyes, and we’re told that she makes good grades. Her parents are Pakistani immigrants and they now live in Oslo, where her parents dream of having doctor children rooted in Pakistani culture (Nisha has an older brother).
Nisha leads a double life. At home, she’s the perfect Pakistani kid, greeting everyone politely, speaking good Hindi, helping out with chores, doing her homework. Outside, and when she sneaks out at night, she becomes one of her carefree Norwegian friends, dancing, hanging out, playing basketball, drinking, even copping a smoke or two.
<<Spoilers ahead. Skip ahead to the last four paragraphs to avoid>>
Everything shatters when her father Mirza (Adil Hussain) discovers her boyfriend in her bedroom. He beats the boy, he hits his daughter, and Child Services is called. Nisha’s protestations of innocence (she doesn’t do much more than share a shy kiss with the boy, even though the camera seems to deliberately frame it as something more scandalous) fall on deaf ears. Her words are irrelevant, anyway; through her actions, she has ruined herself and her family, and that is how the community will perceive her.
It is hard to believe sometimes, even for those of us who live on the periphery of these communities, that this kind of thinking could still be so prevalent. The idea of a woman being ‘compromised’ is certainly straight out of a Victorian novel (and indeed, Mirza does ask his sixteen-year-old daughter if she will marry the boy).
Things spiral out of control very quickly after that. Nisha is kidnapped to Pakistan, where she is dumped with her aunt’s family some 200 km from Islamabad and the nearest airport. Her abortive attempts at escape are punished severely and disproportionately; a scene where her uncle burns her passport before her eyes is particularly heart-wrenching.
Matters get even worse for Nisha after this, but first, you see the spark leave her eyes, wariness and caution taking residence there instead, as her ‘community’ resolutely crushes her spirit. Very little happiness is allowed this girl who dared to step outside the bounds of what is allowed.
There are a lot of horrors visited upon Nisha during the course of the film, particularly a very difficult-to-watch scene involving lecherous Pakistani policemen drunk on power. It would have been easy for the film to tip over into ‘misery porn’ – I have heard the sequence of events called too much to bear or believe, but the film almost never had me questioning its realism – on the contrary, it felt too real, hit too close to home even as I counted my lucky stars for being born into a more liberal family.
For me, Nisha stands beside Maggie Tulliver, Machinal’s Helen Jones and scores of other restless, passionate women in literature that society tries to extinguish over and over again. Women with the power to change the world if only they hadn’t been born into the wrong family at the wrong time. Only, where, say, Maggie frustrated me with her passivity, Nisha has courage. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she maintains, at two crucial junctures of the film, and she believes it even when her family turns on her and casts her out. She is unwilling to buy that she is who they say she is, even though she sees over and over that the world is arrayed against her.
There’s something unquenchable about her, something fiercely brave in this unjust ‘Scarlet Woman’ world she’s been thrust into. Even when she becomes subdued and wary, the change in Maria’s body language brilliantly telegraphing her loss of trust in those closest to her, even then it seems the heartbreaking bewilderment of someone learning just how senseless the world is, how arbitrary its rules, rather than someone who’s internalized the oppressive moral codes of those around her.
I cannot say enough about Maria Mozhdah’s performance. It is astounding. Words fail, really.
The film raises larger issues for me about immigrant culture and the tug-of-war between the old and the new. I have a lot of Indian-American friends and family and on a much smaller scale, I have observed these conflicts over the years. It is clear that they stem from first-gen immigrants’ insecurity about losing their connection to their roots and heritage – an understandable fear – but especially from the fear that their kids will not know enough about where they come from or become ‘too American.’ It’s a heavy burden to place on a child and one that seems to be unthinkingly, even unconsciously done.
More shocking for me – every time I encounter it still – is the deep and abiding fear of women’s sexuality. It shouldn’t surprise me – I live in a country that over-sexualizes and objectifies women while resolutely refusing to demystify desire and sex – but it does. It does surprise me that a country like ours has become a country of prudes (courtesy of our colonial rulers, I suppose). It does surprise me that educated families are so uncomfortable about something so normal, something that should be mundane.
I can testify to the damage these attitudes can do. I cannot recall freely discussing these topics or feeling free to do so growing up. Either outside or at home, I absorbed some very unhealthy notions and there was nobody to tell me differently. For years I struggled with a very Catholic guilt (and I’m not Catholic!) – something that astonishes me looking back because it seems so unnatural – but struggle I did.
If there’s one thing we should take away from stories like these (What Will People Say is reportedly based off some of the director’s real-life experiences), perhaps it should be that it’s time to take down the walls. Time to talk. Time to demystify, destigmatize. Time to open ourselves to the fact that the world is changing and we cannot hold our children back from changing with it. Time to try to understand, to acknowledge that all that is different is not bad, that different lifestyles and different beliefs might not signify immorality.