Tragic, heartbreaking & a tad too relatable, What Will People Say packs a premise that will strike a much deeper chord with desi audience, for the depicted culture & way of life in this story mirrors that of our own, especially the part where women are unnecessarily burdened with the task of keeping the family image respectable by limiting their own choices and living as per societal expectations.
The story of What Will People Say (also known as Hva vil folk si) follows a young Pakistani teenager in Norway who tries to balance the cultures of both countries as best as she could. Her life turns upside down when her father catches her with a boy in her room and, in order to set an example & escape the judgment of their peers, dispatch her to a small Pakistani town to live with their extended relatives.
Written & directed by Iram Haq in what’s her sophomore directorial effort, the story handles its provocative subject matter with honesty, and makes it real easy for viewers to sympathise with the protagonist’s helpless fate. Haq leaves no stone unturned to illustrate the age-old beliefs & rigid customs that families in these demographics still adhere to but she just shows them for what they are instead of condemning it outright.
Anything & everything our protagonist does only goes back to how it will reflect on the family’s reputation in society as we witness her being blamed for stuff she didn’t even do. How a particular event looks from an outsider’s perspective tends to have more meaning in such households than what the fact may be and Haq isn’t just aware of that but also tries to capture & explore that angle to whatever extent she possibly can.
The locales of Rajasthan, India stand in for Pakistani small town setting and since Urdu is mutually intelligible with Hindi, the background chatter & local streets do exhibit an authentic vibe. Camerawork is grounded and gives actors room to bring their emotions to surface at their own pace. While the story takes our protagonist through hell & back, the ending still doesn’t pack a strong enough punch. The music is fitting though, and shows up only when required.
Coming to the performances, What Will People Say is single-handedly steered by Maria Mozhdah whose emotionally resonant input makes her the find of this film. Her rendition is so genuine, her character arc is so lifelike and her expressions are so spot-on that we are on board with her from the start and could relate to what she’s feeling at any given moment. Adil Hussain & the rest of the cast chip in with good support but none are on the same level as Mozhdah.
On an overall scale, What Will People Say is a tense, absorbing & moving story about women’s rights, cultural clashes & familial duties that finds its Norwegian filmmaker taking a leaflet out of her own life to deliver a semi-autobiographical account that’s sensibly directed, finely scripted & strongly acted. Powered by an astounding debut performance from the young Maria Mozhdah, this Norwegian drama with desi roots is one of the better films of the year and can certainly do well with broader viewership. Definitely recommended.