The haunting synth music grows louder and louder to match the panic of a brown teenage girl running back home in the cold Norwegian night. As her hoop earrings jangle, my heart hammers. The scene switches between shots of the girl’s father, checking on each of his sleeping children in their bed rooms with an eerie calm.
As an Indian teenager, this scene evokes an especially potent feeling of anxiety, and I hope that our protagonist, Nisha (played by Maria Mozhdah), will make it before her father realises that she has snuck out.
This arresting scene is the opener to What Will People Say, Norway’s entry for the Best Foreign Film category of the 2018 Academy Awards. The film centers around Nisha, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who leads a double life, flitting between the Westernised nonchalance of her Norwegian peers and the demure, studious girl that her parents expect her to be.
However, this facade comes crashing down when Nisha’s father finds her holding hands with her boyfriend in her room. This sets in motion a riveting plot line in which Nisha is sent to Pakistan, where her world turns upside down.
What struck me most is the common thread that holds this film together – the idea that society’s expectations are more important than individual desires. This idea – captured by the film’s title ‘What Will People Say’ – is probably intended to be a translation of the infuriating Hindustani phrase ‘log kya kahenge.’ A phrase that has robbed us of a phantom race of South Asians who would have pursued their dreams, no matter how unconventional, in their careers, lifestyles and relationships.
The film communicates this sentiment effectively by showing how Nisha’s family’s cruelty was the product of the Pakistani immigrant community’s blinkered attitude towards raising teenagers.
The conflict between society and the individual is seen in Nisha’s father’s character, portrayed impressively by Adil Hussein (who also played the father in Life of Pi and English Vinglish). While he is absolutely outraged at the thought of his daughter having sex, his anger is underpinned by his ardent desire for her to have a successful career.
Whether it was sending Nisha to Pakistan or deciding to marry her off to a stranger, the father seems to be at odds with himself and is only pushed to act by the deluge of his Pakistani immigrant friends’ opinions and the fear of social isolation.
The film strongly reminiscent of the dark side of desi culture and how patriarchy tramples and suppresses women’s individuality. For Nisha, the beginning seems benign and relatable, with her parents’ intolerance for crop-tops and aversion to her socialising with boys. However, her life quickly spirals into a situation where her own brother is complicit in the plan to tear her away from Norway – the only home she’s ever known.
The film also highlights the double standards that men and women face for acting on their sexual desires. In both instances where Nisha was found with a boy, the consequences fell entirely on her, whether it was slut-shaming or being forced into marriage, while the boys carried on with their lives as usual.
However, it’s not just the men who are guilty.
The cutting remarks and taunts like ‘kamini’ that Nisha experiences at the hands of her mother and aunts are as impactful as the men’s physical abuse, because it comments on the utter brokenness of society where misogyny is so deep-rooted that even women have internalised these sexist beliefs.
The true merits of What Will People Say lie in its ability to tell a cross-cultural story so fluidly.
Take for example the scene of Nisha’s parents dancing in their house at a gathering in front of their friends. Nisha’s mother immediately regrets dancing, saying that it was ‘vulgar’ and inappropriate to dance in front of men. Nisha tries to disagree with her mother, but is shot down. Minutes later, we see Nisha at a party, waving her arms and swinging her hips freely with her Norwegian friends.
Another instance of the apropos use of motifs was when Nisha is seen smoking to fit in with her peers and claim her freedom. and later in the film, Nisha’s grandmother is being chastised for smoking as she complains about how she’s never allowed to do what she wants – another commentary on how women are denied the freedom to live on their own terms.
While the film distinctly differentiated Nisha’s life in the two countries – juxtaposing the vibrant bustle of Pakistan with the endless white snow and dull frame of Norway – her two romantic encounters are remarkably similar, suggesting that the tenderness of teenage love transcends cultures.
This realistic portrayal of romance in the movie was a welcome change from my general diet of endlessly cliched American movies about teenagers. In those films, where a kiss is often the resolution of the conflict of the film, What Will People Say speaks to the millions of young South Asians for whom a kiss can be their undoing.
Angela Mathew is a seventeen-year-old student from Mumbai
Featured image credit: YouTube