Celebrates nothing, except perhaps the vaguest, blandest sense of what one could call “Western values.”
What Will People Say is a film that pairs well with Brooklyn, a darling of the 2016 Academy Awards. Both films are about the travails of immigrant women, coming of age and caught between two worlds. But, beyond that obvious point, their similarities are few in number. Whereas Brooklyn is a feminist tale affirming its protagonist’s agency in a cast populated by characters who are also genuine human beings, a film which also celebrates the cultures and wonders of both places the immigrant hero is torn between, What Will People Say is more or less the opposite. The Iram Haq-directed film celebrates nothing, except perhaps the vaguest, blandest sense of what one could call “Western values.” Further, there is not a single believable human being among the cast of stereotypes, nor are anyone’s choices affirming of their agency. Brooklyn made audiences feel by convincing them to empathize with the immigrant experience; What Will People Say makes audiences feel by hitting them in the head with a brick.
What Will People Say follows the life of Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), a Pakistani-Norwegian teenager whose actions set off a firestorm of posturing, shame and baroque displays of authority among her family members. She is caught in a state of half-dress in bed with a ginger-haired Norwegian boy by her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), who snaps into sudden and unexpected violence. A neighbor calls the police and Nisha is separated from her family. After being bullied by his Pakistani-Norwegian community members, Mirza takes drastic action to punish Nisha and win back respectability for his household. He kidnaps Nisha from Norwegian state custody, smuggles her to Germany and flies with her to Islamabad. Then he takes a bus to his family home and dumps his daughter with his sister and mother.
For a brief period, Nisha seemingly adopts the Pakistani way of life but is again caught playing kissing cousins (literally) by the Pakistani police. She is shamed for her seductive cunning and shunned by her adoptive family. Mirza comes back to Pakistan to deal with her, fails to persuade his daughter to commit suicide and then takes her back to Norway, where he and her mother hide her away until they find a suitable arranged marriage for her.
Setting aside plot issues concerning the way Nisha’s family sidesteps the authority of the Norwegian state and its protective services, What Will People Say is still rife with puzzling elements. One concerns the character of Mirza. A violent father who uses fists when confronted with his daughter’s sexuality is nothing out of the ordinary—just scroll Twitter during prom season—but the film tries to have it both ways with him. There is something worthy of exploration in the figure who left behind a native culture and country to raise his children in a whole new place. The conflicts are numerous. Even his willingness to go along with making an example of Nisha is understandable: the other Pakistani immigrants in Norway are his only social circle. But What Will People Say needs Mirza to be more than an interesting character; it also requires that he be a stereotype: the woman-hating, tradition-touting angry violent Muslim man. It wants him to be an engaging human being with depth and feelings when it suits the film, and to be a stand-in for the Muslim bogeyman when plot machinations require. This is a fundamental flaw. The other characters, even Nisha herself at times, are similarly mistreated, required to be either actual people or stock stereotypes as the film needs.
This leads to questions about the film’s motives. What Will People Say is blunt and single-minded in its portrayal of the brutalization of Nisha. But what is the broader purpose? Is it to champion “Western values” over Islamic ones, to support the notion of a clash of civilizations between “Christian Europe” and the Muslim world or to populate the wet dreams of Europe and North America’s hateful xenophobes calling for a ban on Islam and its practitioners? If it is any of these, the film is dangerous and disgusting, as Muslim migrants drown in the Mediterranean and folks who white supremacists claim look Muslim are being beaten in the streets in the US, while multiple world powers drop bombs on Muslim countries. It is not true that non-Muslim countries treat women better than Muslim ones, nor is it the case that Scandinavia is a feminist utopia. Bangladesh and Sweden are both case studies in this point, or even the US, which elected a blatant misogynist President instead of a woman. Certainly, teenage girls are shamed for their sexuality in Pakistan and are often met with violence, but teenage girls are similarly shamed everywhere; the US is just one example of a place that meets sexual deviance with violence (refer to the suicide and homicide rates for transgender people, for one such example). Even if What Will People Say is intended as an activist film about the sad state of affairs for teenage girls in Pakistan, this does not explain why Norway is such a key component of the plot. Why make the villain a Muslim immigrant, especially now of all times, in a film intended as humanistic?
Brooklyn, sappy as it was, showed the heart-rending decisions that immigrants must make between family, tradition and customs on one hand, and opportunity, excitement and change on the other. What Will People Say, conversely, takes the easiest target—the Asian Muslim who has removed himself from Asia—and only manages to batter it down by castigating all plot consistency.