What happens when a Pakistani teenager grows up in Norway? What will people say about her and her family if the rules are broken? These are some of the questions raised by What Will People Say, written and directed by Pakistani director Iram Haq and produced by Norwegian Maria Ekerhovd. In the film,16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) lives a double life: at school and out with her friends she’s a regular Norwegian girl, with girlfriends and a boyfriend, but at home, with her family and older brother, she is the perfect Pakistani daughter. When her father (Adil Hussain) catches her alone with her boyfriend in her bedroom, Nisha’s two worlds brutally collide. Intending to “straighten her out” Nisha’s parents force her to travel to Pakistan where she is left to live with their extended family in a small town. There, in an unfamiliar country surrounded by people she barely knows, where the rules are a thousand times more rigid than she can ever imagine in Norway, Nisha must adapt to a culture that denies her the freedoms she once enjoyed.
Winner of Audience Awards at the AFI Fest and the Les Arcs European Film Festival, What Will People Say is a tense and moving drama about women’s rights, immigrant identity, and familial duties. Based on director Iram Haq’s own experiences as a young Pakistani woman in Norway, it features an astounding debut by 18-year old Mozhdah and a nuanced performance by veteran actor Hussain (Life of Pi). “The story of What Will People Say is my most personal so far,” says author Iram Haq. “When I was 14 years old, I was kidnapped by my parents and forced to live for one and a half years in Pakistan. I have waited until I felt ready as a filmmaker and as a person to be able to tell this story in a wise and sensible way. That is, without making the girl appear just as a victim and her parents evil. I wanted to tell an impossible love story between parents and their child.”
With this film, a Scandinavian co-production, Haq intended to open a conversation about “a deeper understanding for the dilemma parents and children find themselves in, especially when they come from such different worlds, like Nisha and her father,” she says. “Growing up I had mostly Norwegian friends and it felt really unfair being a young girl and not being allowed to do what the others were doing.” Working with an international crew was also part of the cinematic endeavor for Haq: “I loved having a whole Indian team working together with Danes, Germans, and Swedes. The actors have been amazing the whole time,” the director says. “Maria Mozhdah, who plays the leading role, is a really amazing girl, and she was only 17 at that time.”
Haq, 42, is an actress, writer, and director; her feature film debut, I Am Yours, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 and was selected as Norway’s official Oscar entry. The film has gone on to win a number of prizes at festivals around the world.