'What Will People Say' Hits Like A Ton Of Bricks But Is Anchored By An Incredible Lead Performance [Review]

Writer/Director Iram Haq mines the cultural divide between a young girl’s Pakistani roots and her Norwegian upbringing in the compelling, but ultimately overly polemical, “What Will People Say.” The film’s modest introduction, focusing on protagonist Nisha’s navigation between her own wants and her parents could make up for an assured follow up to her well-received and similarly themed “I Am Yours,” but Haq soon levels one torture after another on Nisha, sacrificing nuanced storytelling for blunt force trauma and reducing everyone that isn’t Nisha into caricature.

Sixteen-year-old Nisha (newcomer Maria Mozhdah, in a fierce debut) is trying to live a relatively normal upbringing, balancing the partying lifestyle of her Norwegian friends against the strict Pakistani household, run by her commanding father Mirza (Adil Hussain, trying to find sympathy in a stunningly unsympathetic character). Her family appears overly dependent on others perceptions of them, hence the upfront title, forcing Nisha to cover her midriff when going to visit her father and her lingering fear of being seen with her boyfriend.

When she finally sneaks that boyfriend into their apartment, only for her father to find them, all hell breaks loose as Mirza beats her boyfriend and attacks Nisha. Believing her to bring dishonor upon the family, and openly wondering if they’ll be shunned by the community, Mirza effectively kidnaps Nisha and takes her to Pakistan to live with her aunt for, essentially, reconditioning. There, despite initial resistance, she finally warms to the environment and finds another possible suitor in her cousin Asif (Ali Arfan), only to repeat the same tragedy, being sexually humiliated by the local police one night and forced to return to Norway, where she is cloistered by her family, afraid of what the neighbors might think.

The first two acts, then, are almost direct mirrors of each other, grinding the story to a halt as we are forced to watch Nisha repeat the same narrative. Despite Nisha’s passivity, she continually finds herself sexualized by others outside of her two brief relationships. Her father’s staunch belief that she is ruined upon catching her with her boyfriend disregards Nisha’s own pleas that they never had a sexual encounter, and further mirrors the Pakistani police’s response upon discovering Asif and Nisha kissing in an alley. Nisha’s inability to control the narrative surrounding her own body becomes a through-line for the film, as she is constantly told how to dress and what is and isn’t appropriate.

The rigidity of her Pakistani culture and the excessive focus on familial reputation are central lines of attack for Haq, who repeatedly bludgeons the audience with head-shaking tragedy, pushing Nisha to the brink of emotional torture time and again to prove the films central thesis. What remains is an effective argument against antiquated thinking, particularly in regards to governing female bodies, that sacrifices character and nuance in the process. 

There are only so many times one can be horrified at Nisha’s plight before becoming emotionally numb. Adil Hussain’s Mirza particularly suffers from this approach. In what begins as a rounded performance about a man trying to straddle his own beliefs with the modernity of Norway, soon becomes almost comical villainous. At one point he demands Nisha jump off a cliff because of the dishonor she has brought to the family, further losing any audience sympathy that may have previously existed.

Despite the films aggressively argumentative approach, Haq does display a confidence behind the camera that suggests a bright filmmaking future, if she is able to synthesize theme and plot in a more compelling manner. The film is never anything less than competently made and visually interesting. Shooting in a vérité-style, the cinematography by Nadim Carlsen is another standout, as he juxtaposes the underlit and ominous Norway against the bright possibility of Pakistan.

The biggest takeaway though is Maria Mozhdah, in her first film performance. Given the only full character arc, Mozhdah is nothing short of a revelation, pushing the film along on her own shoulders. As Nisha further regresses into her own self, becoming more passive with each new act of tragedy, Mozdah highlights this change by closing off the character physically, hesitant to touch anyone for fear of what may come of it. In a film lacking in nuance, Mozdah brings needed depth to her performance. [C]