The price of freedom is dangerously high. And it is a price many women have been paying for years now. Those who have dared to stick their heads out in rebellion have been violently reprimanded, socially humiliated, made an example out of, and shunned. Especially so, when there has been a direct rebuttal of culture. Everything along these lines has been shown in Norwegian-Pakistani director Iram Haq’s critically-acclaimed film What Will People Say (2017). Currently streaming on Netflix, the film addresses patriarchy from the prism of culture and gender shaming.
The story begins in Norway, where a teenager Nisha (played by Maria Mozhdah) is shown doing normal teen stuff — partying with other Norwegian teens — whilst simultaneously maintaining the desperate image of a dutiful daughter. In the film’s opening scene, she is seen galloping on the streets in a ghostly hour, desperate to make it home before she’s caught.
Her family, having journeyed all the way from Pakistan under extreme circumstances, have some archaic beliefs — which do not seem alarmingly extraordinary at first, but begin to spiral into borderline criminal as the story progresses. For instance, when the family invites guests over one evening, Nisha’s father Mirza (played by Adil Hussain) asks his wife to dance with him, an innocuous request, which their son writes off casually as something that is blasphemous. Tender moments between the father-daughter duo flicker out when Nisha is caught with a boy in her room. Things escalate, and she is quickly bundled and sent away to Pakistan, so she can be “closer to her roots”.
The justification to this is, at the very least, appalling. Adil Hussain’s Mirza sits with his peers/friends discussing a course of action. They suggest he teach his daughter a lesson, lest she becomes a rotten apple that spoils the entire bunch. So Mirza and son his son Asif drive her around all night — a ride that is fraught with tension — take her phone away, force her back into the car when she attempts to flee, and get her to take a flight to her native Pakistan. Loosely based on the real life experiences of Haq, this scene was, by her own admission, one that mirrored an actual kidnapping.
In Pakistan (recreated in India), Nisha is forced to live with her conservative relatives, make do with the circumstances, cook and clean, offer prayers and go vegetable shopping with her aunt: everything that is required of women. A beautifully-shot scene of her flying a kite all by herself explains subtly her poignancy.
When a newfound friendship turns into love, Nisha’s wings are once again clipped — this time, with damaging consequences.
A verbatim translation of the age-old saying ‘log kya kahenge‘, What Will People Say treads the disturbingly-dark path of entitlement. There are moments when the underlying theme gnaws at your from inside the screen. You sit there wondering whether you should be livid or scared, or both. For instance, when the father-daughter duo has a moment by a cliff, you think if the discourse around honour would lead Mirza to kill his own daughter.
Back in Norway, ground rules are laid for housebound Nisha. Her marriage is fixed with a Canada-based Pakistani doctor, who forbids her from studying any further — something that triggers Mirza as well. Which is why, perhaps, in the end, when Nisha finally manages to escape from the confines of her house, her father watches her teary-eyed, helpless and vulnerable — unwilling to move a muscle or raise an alarm.
Did Mirza forgive her? Would he ever see her again? Haq leaves these questions dangling in the air, as the screen turns black and credits begin to roll.
The subject of women’s rights have been explored in many films, but few have done it as violently. Anushka Sharma’s NH10 (2015), for instance, had a no-holds-barred approach to dealing with the sensitive topic of honour killing. There was blood, gore, guns and vengeance. The film didn’t sugarcoat the subject. Instead, it took you by the collar and smacked you right across the face, as if to say, “Look, here’s the society you live in. Understand your privilege.”
The same could be said for the beautifully nuanced Highway (2014) that touched the topic of child sexual abuse. The rousing monologue by Alia Bhatt’s Veera towards the end of the film was painfully cathartic. But, like the characters on screen, many outside of it squirmed uncomfortably, too.
That is because every time someone starts a dialogue around gender discrimination and violence — and society is taken to task — the narrative automatically shifts and assumes the form of ‘culture’, and how a certain gender is to be held responsible for ‘going astray’. That communities are made of people and people set the rules, and questioning them would be to question the entire community, and, by extension, the society.
Besides, it is easier to just give in to the prescribed norms than risk being an anomaly — after all, log kya kahenge?