I discovered the movie What Will People Say? while browsing Netflix. Growing up in a society in which people are obsessed with everyone else’s opinion (except their own, perhaps), the name of the film caught my attention. Directed by Iram Haq and set in present-day Norway and Pakistan, the film is about Nisha, the teenaged daughter of parents who moved to Norway from Pakistan.
Nisha’s character is like that of any other teenager growing up in a city, exploring life – internally and externally. The initial scenes of the movie explore Nisha’s character. She seems to be well aware of the fact that even though her parents have moved from Pakistan and now live in a different culture in Norway, they have not yet left their own culture and customs behind. Nisha herself juggles between trying to be part of both cultures and lives a ‘dual life’, one outside home, and one inside. I relate to her character so much, even though I am not a teenager anymore. My parents too moved from a village to a city, but I think they often forget that I was born and brought up in a different culture, time and space. I completely understand Nisha’s juggling and I also understand that it is not that easy to dismiss what is expected of you, especially if you are a woman.
Nisha’s happy, easy-going life is turned upside down when her father discovers her friend Daniel in her room. Suddenly this incident becomes everything about what Nisha is and what she can ever be, and based on that, her parents find it justifiable to send her to their relatives in Pakistan to ‘rehabilitate’ her. Nisha is shocked to discover this side of her parents; she pleads, promises not to repeat the ‘mistake’ and also tries to run away on the way to the airport. Unfortunately, none of her efforts work in her favour and she is taken to her father’s sister’s place. While leaving her there, her father says, “Main tumhari bhalaai ke liye kar raha hoon” (I am doing this for your own good). Does this sentence sound familiar to you? Well, it does to me! We will come back to this at the end of the review. It is definitely not easy for Nisha to be with her relatives in Pakistan; she tries to contact her friends in Norway but her aunt discovers that, and a while later, her uncle burns her passport. She is basically left with no other option but to ‘settle in’.
As Nisha’s stay at her aunt’s home continues, the film begins to explore Nisha’s relationship with Amir (her male cousin) who stays in the same house. They both begin to like each other and Nisha seems to be happy about something in her life after a long time. One night, Amir and Nisha sneak out of the house and go to a quiet street corner in their neighborhood. Unfortunately, the police discover them kissing, beat them, order Nisha to strip, and record a video. They then take them back home and tell the family that they have nude photos/videos of Nisha and Amir and extort money in exchange for not making these photos public. The family blames Nisha for the whole situation and for ‘manipulating’ Amir; they call her father and ask him to take her away.
After Nisha returns to her parents’ home, her friends try and contact her on the phone and one of them also tries to visit her, but her parents fob them off by saying that she is not at home. I think this is what shame does: it makes it hard to raise your eyes and look up. Nisha’s parents were brought up in a culture where ‘What will people say?’ was important and were finding it difficult to accept that they are now in a different culture where people could perhaps let go of what happened; they are so trapped in shame that they assume that just like themselves, nobody is ever going to forget what happened. They start looking for quick fixes to resolve the situation and set up an arranged marriage for Nisha. The prospective groom and his family seem least interested in Nisha’s individuality and her aspirations for the future. In the last scene, Nisha jumps out of the window one night; her father wakes up and both of them look at each before Nisha finally flees.
Let’s come back to the mixed message of love and abuse in “I am doing this for your own good”. I am not sure about other cultures because I have not experienced them, but I can say for mine that these mixed messages are part of what most of us receive while growing up and even after we grow up. To mix abuse with love, to say that people who love you hurt you the most, to say that love and abuse can co-exist is the most messed-up message we could give anyone. I recently read All About Love by bell hooks that questions this core learning of ours by saying that love and abuse do not co-exist. In a scene in the film, while returning from Pakistan, Nisha’s father asks her to jump off a cliff because apparently whatever was going on was too heavy for him to bear. But to my mind, taking over her life completely, moving her to the same place you earlier moved away from, and asking your own child to die, can be many things but love.
Maybe it is shame, maybe it is the fear of what will people say, maybe it is the inability to articulate one’s thoughts or maybe it is the inability to have a conversation about sexuality and growing up.
The film explores the emotions of each character beautifully, especially those of Nisha’s father who seems to find it challenging to accept the fact that his daughter is growing up and is so immersed in shame (after all, what will people say?) that he is unable to get in touch with feeling his daughter’s pain. Her mother covers her own feelings of shame by being angry with her daughter. Nisha’s older brother does not offer her any support during the familial conflict and seems least concerned about his sibling’s feelings. Through Nisha’s character this film shows how there are multiple social influences on young people including their peers, family, dual cultures (in this case) and how important it is to consider all these lenses while looking at their life. Young people are often pulled in different directions, and, in this case, the film shows how despite living in Norway and trying to keep up with her peers in terms of culture and life in general, Nisha is also subjected to her parents’ Pakistani culture.
What will people say? brilliantly portrays the role that culture and shame play in regulating sexuality and how the absence of safe spaces to hold conversations around sexuality with young people affects their wellbeing and their family relationships. Young people can learn so much about consensual relationships, negotiation and decision-making around sexuality, and fearlessly explore their own thoughts and feelings, if the environment, both familial and extra-familial, around them is safe, supportive and affirming of them as sexual beings in their own right.
Cover Image: A still from the film: What will people say