In Iram Haq’s What Will People Say, 16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) is forced to leave her home in Norway to live with her extended family in Pakistan after her father (Adil Hussain) learns that she has a boyfriend. Norway’s official entry in the foreign language film category for the 2019 Oscars is based on the Pakistani-origin Norwegian filmmaker’s own childhood. “My parents are from Pakistan and they kidnapped me to Pakistan and I lived there for a year. So I knew that when I grow up I will tell this story in some way,” Haq told Scroll.in at a recent screening of the film organised by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in Mumbai.
Dhadak actor Janhvi Kapoor was given the Arets Stjerneskudd (Shooting star of the year) award by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General at the event.
Depicting her life on the big screen was emotionally challenging, Haq said. “There were days I cried and days I was sick, but I would call it one of the best experiences in my life,” Haq said. “It was a long journey to have the courage to tell the story in a wise way that also portrays the struggles of immigrant parents and how scary it becomes for them. The story is also about the struggles of second-generation kids and the conflicts they go through.”
Also starring Ekavali Khanna, Sheeba Chaddha and Lalit Parimoo, What Will People Say was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. The film is available for streaming on Netflix.
The film mixes events from Haq’s life with fictional elements to explore moral policing, misogyny and gender discrimination. “The film is a very woman’s story,” she said. “It is about how a woman’s choices are neglected and they are shamed for having their own voice. There were a lot of themes I had to put together so that it could speak to people.”
What Will People Say closely explores the relationship between a father and daughter separated by temperament and ideology. “I kept on struggling because I did not know how to write this story in a way that it is not all black and white,” Haq said. “I wanted to tell a love story between a father and daughter. A love story that is not so fantastic, but between two different generations, genders and cultures. It was also important to tell that what he did wasn’t right and also to tell it with love.”
Though born out of her journey, the film looks at the shared experiences of women across the world, the filmmaker asserted. “There are so many countries in which girls get kidnapped and even go through honour killing,” Haq explained. “Finally people are talking about it, and it was important to give these women a voice out there.”
The contentious subject matter made it hard to find a Pakistani-Norwegian actor to play 16-year-old Nisha. “It is a very controversial film for the Norwegian Pakistani community,” Haq said. “So we were struggling to find the right girl and there were not many people coming for the audition as they were not allowed to act. Mariah [Mozhdah] came and she was just the right one.”
Casting Indian actor Adil Hussain for the father’s role was a natural choice because of his range, Haq said. “Finding Adil Hussain was the easiest part because he is such a great actor and I knew that I wanted him in my film,” she said. “He was just the right person for the role. We had casting directors in India who helped me with some of the fantastic actors here like Ekavali Khanna, Sheebha Chaddha and others.” The Pakistani-set portions of What Will People Say were shot in India, the majority of them in Udaipur and Ajmer, in 2016.
This Haq’s second feature film after I Am Yours (2013), which too was Norway’s official entry for the Academy awards. On getting a second shot at the coveted award, she said, “I feel very grateful and overwhelmed”.
While Haq began writing the story as an angry daughter, her reconciliation with her father a few years ago changed everything. “My father and I became friends close to the end of his life,” she recalled. “He apologised for what he had done and that is how I got the chance to understand who he was and ask him all those questions. He wasn’t a proud man anymore. He could talk about all of that with shame. My love for him and not being angry changed everything.”