Most families, mainly South Asian ones, have a strange obsession with the faceless entity called honour that drives them to commit the worst crimes on their own families. Every South Asian child, brought up anywhere in the world, is all too familiar with the phrase “What will people say?” — it is at once a question, a negation, an anxiety and, most importantly, a fear. One is usually asked this question when one wants to do something off the beaten track, something that isn’t a part of the codified norms of the community and something that brings you a pleasure that is somewhat “uncalled for” in your family and society’s books. It is never quite clear who these “people” really are or why they matter more to your family than your wishes or your word. It is also never quite clear why these people have so much to say about people, mostly young women, they are not responsible for. You could be seen with a boyfriend, you could be seen walking with your head not covered or you could be seen laughing out loud on a street — you could be doing anything that brings you joy, and people will always have something to say. The honour of a woman most definitely resides in her vagina, and is essentially seen as a communal responsibility. The answer to the question “What will people say?” is always the same; that you are bringing dishonour to your family, to your community.
The very title of Iram Haq’s Norwegian production, What Will People Say? (2017) conjures up images from a childhood and youth that has made many women like me question our ambitions and desires depending on what nameless and faceless people might think or say. The story is of Nisha (played by the brilliant Maria Mozhdah), a teenager, daughter of Pakistani immigrants growing up in Norway. Everything about her is the life most children of middle to upper class immigrants, have lived. She is comfortably bi-lingual speaking Urdu at home and Norwegian with her friends outside, wearing a crop top outside and covering up when home while constantly trying to negotiate her family’s somewhat restrictive values while the world outside promises an unbridled freedom to date, party, drink and dance. It is, to begin with, a family of four which is bound by a love that is underlined with a sense of duty and gratitude. Again, a kind of love South Asian children are all too familiar with. It is only when the father, Mirza (Adil Hussain) walks in on Nisha making out with her boyfriend Daniel (Isak Lie Harr) in her room, that things start taking a turn for the worse. Almost naturally, he beats up both Nisha and her boyfriend while she shouts. She is soon taken away by the Norwegian child support authorities while the parents mourn the loss of the family’s “honour” like a death in the family. The larger Pakistani community ostracises the family and stops interacting with them. She is eventually tricked, threatened and forced to leave for Pakistan to live with her aunt.
The double life Nisha leads, caught between conflicting family and social values, is doubly palpable when the Norwegian social worker keeps telling her over and over again that she has done nothing wrong. To her, it’s just another hormonal teenager making out with a boyfriend. Nisha constantly blames herself, saying what she did was not right. Haq, however, does not take sides; while she shows the social worker vehemently supporting Nisha, she also makes sure to highlight that the Norwegian social worker system is unable to stop and care for the nuances of Nisha’s particular case, they don’t quite get the reason behind Mirza’s meltdown and his subsequent, adamant demand to have Nisha and Daniel married. Because marriage, according to the “people”, is a sure shot way of buying the lost honour back. It is important to note that while What Will People Say? is deeply critical of the South Asian patriarchy that stifles Nisha’s life, Haq is also aware of its smaller nuances that most Western countries dismiss as a part of being “backward.” On her part, there is that acknowledgement of her father being rendered absolutely helpless by the way the immigrant Pakistani society around him functions and the strict codes of masculinity they want him to abide by. While the narrative could’ve easily been dismissive in taking a “He should’ve just spoken out against the society” perspective, it doesn’t. It understands why an immigrant Pakistani, Muslim man needs to have a strong support from his community within a White, “Progressive”, Western country. As a viewer though, I am compelled to ask why her older brother, Asif, with his Norwegian upbringing, does not stand by his sister when she needs him the most.
Nisha’s move to Pakistan is obviously uncomfortable and after many futile attempts at rebellion, she gives in and settles down. Her Pakistani relatives, all strict and illogically insensitive (relative to Mirza’s portrayal) refuse to understand Nisha’s pain of being uprooted from her world against her will. While Western audiences might find it hard to process seeing her help out in the kitchen and wiping floors, it is actually quite the done thing in most South Asian families where families are big and the resources are modest. Here, Nisha falls in love with her cousin and while they steal a kiss clandestinely, the police catch hold of them. They make her strip, take photos of her and masturbate while watching her lie on the street — embarrassed, naked, scared and crying. In this one scene, Haq effectively brings out the sinister way in which the State empowers the heinous modes through which patriarchy continually strives to keep young women’s sexuality in check. While the police and other state apparatus strive to legislate over women’s bodies and sexualities, they also derive a perverted and twisted sense of gratification from the acute helplessness of a naked woman begging for forgiveness. Again, Nisha says that she has done nothing wrong, she only kissed the man she was in love with. Again Mirza wants her to marry him so that the status quo of “honour” remains undisturbed. The more things change, the more they remain the same. At different points of the film, both her parents express that they’d rather have her dead than to have to deal with the dishonour of parenting a daughter like her. “People have even stopped calling us for weddings,” her mother says. One wonders what it takes for parents to stop paying heed to what people say and start listening to what their own daughter says; to listen and believe instead of mourning for a missed wedding invite.
I wish I could tear down this film saying it’s another of those narratives that demonise the global South, decry its values in the name of progressive thought and peddle extreme lies to pander to Western audiences. It doesn’t. Sadly, these things happen and happen regularly enough. The film hits the audience like a ton of bricks; it’s so difficult to watch, that one cringes and covers their eyes. The crux of the film is so painful and disturbing that one can barely appreciate the cinematography and the images of Norway, Sweden, Germany and India (passing off as Pakistan).
The only image that sticks on is that last scene where Nisha climbs down her balcony, the same one Daniel used to sneak in, and runs under a snowy Norwegian sky. It’s a dark night lit with yellow street lamps, it’s sad and gloomy with the ice, it doesn’t have any of the colours of the Pakistani bazaar or the Oslo skyline at night, but it has hope. Hope in a girl finally being able to run away and hope in a father who realises why she needs to. There’s always an overarching sadness at the way things are, but sometimes a little bit of hope can go a long way.