A first-generation Norwegian teen clashes with the traditional values and expectations of her Pakistani émigré parents in the compelling coming-of-age drama “What Will People Say,” from director-writer Iram Haq. Like her feature debut “I Am Yours,” Haq’s sophomore work smartly probes the problems of a character caught between cultures, while the nuanced screenplay once again draws on her own harrowing life experience. Audiences and critics alike should say good things about “People.” The kinetically shot film brims with authenticity and immediacy and benefits from a deeply sympathetic turn from sublime discovery Maria Mozhdah as the lead. Niche arthouse play looks likely in many territories.
The story unfolds in three acts. When we first meet her, pretty 16-year-old Nisha (Mozhdah) is living a double life. Outside the home, she appears to be a normal, well-adjusted, Western values-oriented high-school girl who hangs out with friends, shoots hoops, dances at clubs and flirts with boys; she’s even unafraid to sample a little alcohol and weed. Meanwhile, at home, she pays lip service to the role of dutiful Pakistani daughter, greeting friends and relatives in Urdu and passing around home-cooked delicacies. Her sour, nagging mother (Ekavali Khanna) constantly worries about how the rest of the community regards their family and her perhaps too-assimilated daughter, but since bright, destined-to-be-a-doctor Nisha is the apple of her father (Adil Hussain), Mirza’s, eye, she can get away with a lot. Thus, she finds time to slip out and join her friends, but always slips back to bed before dad performs his nightly check on his sleeping children.
One night, Nisha takes a big chance by allowing her handsome boyfriend Daniel (Isak Lie Harr) to follow her back to her room. By Norwegian standards, she’s doing nothing wrong, just a little cuddling and kissing, but when her father discovers them, he goes ballistic and beats the two youngsters. Norwegian social services takes Nisha into protective custody while her parents continue to trumpet their belief that she has lost her virginity and destroyed their honor. The local Pakistani community circles around, unanimous in their criticism. They advise Nisha’s father that he must make an example of her with a punishment so strong that none of their offspring would dare to make the same mistake.
Nisha misses the warmth of her family and is all too eager to make up with them. When her mother calls and says that they want her to come home to discuss matters, she believes it’s true. But when her father and brother (Ali Arfan) come to pick her up, they have another destination in mind — her aunt’s home, some 200 miles outside Islamabad.
The second act takes place in Pakistan, where Nisha has been brought and left against her will. Her aunt (Sheeba Chaddha) is harsh with her, making her work around the house and in the kitchen. She tolerates no rebellion, locking Nisha in a closet when she tries to contact friends through an internet café. Her uncle (Lalit Parimoo) burns her Norwegian passport and warns her that if she attempts such communication again, her father will marry her to a peasant and she will have to spend the rest of her life milking buffalos. Eventually, though traumatized, Nisha settles down and finds some pleasure in exploring her parents’ culture — but scandal seems to find her despite her best intentions.
The second act further proves that “People” is no run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story. While out one night with her cousin, Amir (Rohit Saraf), Nisha endures an encounter with the police so shocking it’s hard to believe that Haq could bear to put it on film. She stages the scene so powerfully that it takes the audience’s breath away. Afterward, poor wronged Nisha once again receives the blame for actions that were no fault of her own, and that lead to even stronger attempts by her family to control her.
Although one may argue that the character of Nisha’s father transforms too easily from doting dad to tyrant, Haq definitely makes him a complex and conflicted character. The director clearly conveys the love that exists between father and daughter,but which cannot end happily because of the wide gulf between their cultures.
Impressively lensed in Norway, Sweden, Germany and India (Rajasthan stands in for Nisha’s father’s ancestral home), “People” represents a big step up from Haq’s more modestly scaled debut, but it’s a move she handles with assurance and aplomb. She develops the father-daughter relationship visually as well as verbally, showing the action from both their perspectives. The film is also attuned to the small glances and movements of the supporting characters, which carry more weight than words.