‘What Will People Say’ attempts to tell a complex, heart-wrenching story.
And it mostly succeeds.
What Will People Say is about Nisha (Maria Mozhdah).
Nisha has to live two lives: that of a typical Norwegian teenage girl by day, and that of a perfect Pakistani daughter by night.
Nisha sneaks out one night to go partying with her friends, gets a little drunk, and sneaks back into her bedroom with her boyfriend. While nothing untoward happens between the two, Nisha’s father (Adil Hussain) discovers them and reacts badly, assuming the worst (that is, that they had sex).
Nisha’s parents are mortified and ashamed. To set an example, they send Nisha off to Pakistan, a country she doesn’t know, to live with distant relatives she’s never met.
What Will People Say is just three-fourths of the way to being a great movie. Maybe even four-fifths. Which is a tragedy, because so many aspects are so good.
All the performances in the film are top-notch, especially on the part of young Maria Mozhdah as Nisha, from whom I hope we see a lot more in the future. She summons and displays emotional depth so effortlessly, I figured she must have been in her early/mid-20s (at least) and playing younger (something we see all the time). It was only when I looked at the press notes afterward that I discovered Mozhdah was only 17 at the time of filming.
Mozhdah and the rest of the cast have the rare and uncanny gift of being able to communicate entire thought processes through facial expression and body language, which is essential, especially in this case, to crafting a fully realized character, and thereby avoiding melodrama. Mostly.
What Will People Say does occasionally dip its toe into melodrama, but even at its most melodramatic, the cast never allows their characters to flatten out. It’d be really easy for Adil Hussain to play Nisha’s father moustache-twirlingly evil, for example. But Hussain never turns him into caricature.
In fact, that’s indicative of what I respect most about the film. Writer-director Iram Haq avoids judging any of her characters too harshly. She presents them as flawed individuals, each doing what they feel is best according to their own value set.
While all the parts for a great movie are present, I unfortunately never really felt connected to the story or the characters. Haq did a good job of flipping my sympathy switch, but not necessarily my empathy switch.
For all of Haq’s great writing, the storytelling always seemed somewhat passive. That is to say, the story seemed to simply happen, despite the well-drawn characters.
Taken as individual units, the scenes are all good. They’re well written, well shot, and well acted. But when you put those scenes together, they don’t necessarily cohere into a story so much as they do just one unfortunate occurrence after another. Nisha, despite being our emotional anchor, has very little agency in her own story.
Which, yes, I know. This is the story of her kidnapping. She’s being sent to another country against her will to live with a distant family she doesn’t even know, so part of the point is her lack of agency, right? Yeah, sure. But that’s not quite what I’m talking about. What I mean is that I never got the sense of Nisha’s journey, of Nisha as her own emotional entity, navigating the circumstances within which she had found herself. Rather, the circumstances themselves were the journey, and Nisha (and the rest of the characters) were just along for the ride.
But, overall, What Will People Say is a very good film. It’s a difficult, nuanced examination of a generational and cultural clash taken to an extreme, and definitely worth checking out if you have the time.
Check out a trailer for the film below!