Touching Chords, Raising Questions: What Will People Say?

Culture and tradition weave the tapestry of our identity. Every community takes pride in the customs they follow and the values they adhere to. It is hoped that these beliefs are practiced by one generation after another. But can the legacy be comfortably handed down at the crossroads where the winds of a new culture blow against the existing one?

Amazon Prime just recently added What Will People Say to its library, and I finally got to see this movie I had long wanted to watch. Inspired by director Iram Haq’s own life, the movie is partly in Norwegian and mostly in Urdu and centers around a Pakistani family in Norway facing a crisis with their sixteen-year-old daughter. The film, spanning 106 minutes, addresses an issue regarding the conflict of values faced by children whose parents leave their birthplace and migrate to a more developed country in search of greener avenues.

What Will People Say tells the story of Nisha, who leads a double life. She parties, drinks, and has fun with her Norwegian friends without the knowledge of her strict, conservative parents. Pandemonium ensues when her father Mirza discovers her in her room at night with her boyfriend. Although he is a loving father, it is totally against his principles to accept what his daughter is doing. What follows is Mirza’s painstaking struggle to make his daughter start life anew in order to erase the past which he feels is scarred history. That includes a rather harsh move of kidnapping her to Pakistan and leaving her with relatives.

A still from the film

Things do not work out as per Mirza’s wishes, and after a heart-breaking and bone-chilling incident that happens to Nisha, her unsympathetic relatives call her father to take her back to Norway. She continues her life under strict surveillance of her parents. The final segment of the movie focuses on the situation where Nisha is stuck in a quagmire. Will she agree to the plans made by her parents, or will she follow her heart to live life free.?

What Will People Say is not the story of every immigrant family, and making generalizations would be totally unfair. But in some form or the other, similar issues do and may arise in households where parents expect their children to abide by their rules and follow the value systems which are integral in their lives.

Parents who leave their countries to make a home in a more progressive nation endure hardships and strive to provide the best of comforts for their children. Some of them have expectations in return that their children follow their customs and traditions. There is a nagging fear in their hearts that their offspring might adapt to that new culture and follow those norms. A child is most likely to be influenced by the environment in which he or she grows up. At times, torn between two diametrically opposite cultures, it becomes quite a burden to strike the right balance.

The question is: How do we deal with such a situation? How do we say who is right and who is not, and where do we draw a line between the two worlds? We cannot make a judgment about one culture being superior to another. It’s each person’s perceptions and personal feelings that guide them to pick one over the other. Knowing one’s roots is very important because it gives us a reality check. But is there any foolproof formula that guarantees success when we try to inculcate certain values in our children? Attachment towards a particular culture has to come instinctively and not by coercion.

We are definitely witnessing a changing scenario where parents have become more open-minded and have been tolerant of their children adapting to Western lifestyles. Cross-cultural marriages have been on the rise, but there are still individuals who have not been able to free themselves from the shackles of conservatism. Parents also feel societal pressures, just like in the case of Mirza and his wife who have the fear of being ostracized by their Pakistani community if they do not discipline their girl.

My position in regards to siding with any of the two main characters in the film is that of ambivalence. My heart cries out for Nisha when her father does not understand her feelings and when she is ill-treated by her family. I feel her pain when she is forced to live a life against her wishes.

But I can also sense the anguish of a father who loves his daughter immensely, yet cannot cast aside his conservative beliefs. By all means, he is not a bad person. As much as we see his villainous shades when he tries to hit his daughter, spits on her in disdain, and asks her to jump off a cliff, there are softer shades in him too. We see him in his moments of affection, hugging his daughter and doting upon her. Later in the movie, he seems visibly upset when while arranging an alliance, his daughter’s to-be-in laws suggest that she discontinue her studies and stay at home after marriage. And finally, it is his love for his daughter that triumphs over his concerns of “what will people say”.

The story is convincing, with each of the actors playing their roles diligently. But the best doses of dramatic brilliance come from Adil Hussain playing the role of the father and Maria Mozdah who plays his daughter Nisha. Maria performs her role brilliantly and displays a wide range of emotions with unquestionable dexterity. Unknowingly, you are drawn into her world, and you want her suffering to end.

Once again, Adil Hussain does not disappoint. Versatility is definitely his trademark. In whatever minor or major role I have seen him in his movies, he essays his part with equal finesse. While watching the movie, you feel as though Mirza is someone from real life that you know and have met on a regular basis. Adil has in fact created history by being the first Indian to have won the Best Actor award at the Norwegian National Awards, for this film.

What Will People Say was Norway’s entry to the 91st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category, but it was not nominated. It is not a film to watch if you are looking for entertainment. A serious, sensitive movie, it opens a window through which we view reality, think about the least expected problems that destiny may thrust upon a family. It is a film that touches chords and raises questions that makes one ponder about life and its challenges.

Rashmi Bora Das

Rashmi Bora Das moved to the United States from India in the early nineties. She has a master’s degree in English from India. She did her second master’s in Public Administration from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Rashmi is a teacher with a passion for writing. Her other interests include traveling, listening to music and watching films. She lives in Atlanta, GA,