A Pakistani teen who grew up in Norway is sent to live with relatives back on the subcontinent after she’s supposedly dishonored her parents in the stern, finger-pointing drama What Will People Say (Hva vil folk si).

This is the second feature from Pakistani-Norwegian filmmaker Iram Haq, but unfortunately it lacks the nuance and insight of her impressively poignant yet controlled debut feature, I Am Yours, which represented Norway in the foreign-language Oscar derby in 2013. Her new film almost plays like a kind of prequel to her first film, as the young woman growing up between two cultures is younger here but otherwise from a very similar, traditions- and honor-obsessed Pakistani family in Norway.

What Will People Say was part of the Platform competition at the recent Toronto Film Festival, though beyond Scandinavian art houses and a theatrical engagement here or there in Europe, this will remain a festival and ancillary title more than an overtly commercial proposition.  

The lack of subtlety is already obvious in the film’s title, as What Will People Say suggests the supremacy of people’s reputation, which is not necessarily based on the truth but uniquely on how people are perceived by others, which in turn is measured by how others talk about any one person. In this kind of environment, nuance is the enemy, of course, though it is still possible to make a film that’s intelligent and considers multiple sides of the equation as it surveys the high cost of this kind of thinking and the behavior it inspires. Indeed, one of the strands in the 2006 feature After Dark Falls, about an honor killing in an immigrant family in Sweden, already covered similar terrain more successfully.

Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) is 16 and leads a double life. At school, she is a Norwegian teenager in a crop top, even when it’s freezing outside because … well, she’s a 16-year-old and the impression she makes on her peers probably counts more than keeping warm. At home, she’s kept on a short leash by her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), a hardhearted Pakistani paterfamilias who expects his daughter to be home right after school and help his wife (Ekavali Khanna, playing someone without even a name) run the house.

The early going is promising enough, as Haq visually suggests the complexity of having to constantly navigate between two not just different but almost mutually exclusive lives. When Nisha sees a woman with a headscarf approach from the distance, and on the other side of the street, she feels that she immediately needs to stop talking to the cute Daniel (Isak Lie Harr). And when she wants to go and visit her father at his grocery store during work hours because it’s his birthday, her crop top has to disappear under a layer of two of other clothes.

Things turn into a nightmare when Daniel sneaks into Nisha’s room at night and the duo are caught by Mirza. Beyond some flirting, nothing much has happened, but her father is incensed. This finally results in her being taken to the airport against her will by Dad and her very compliant older brother, Asif (Ali Arfan), with Mirza sending her to Pakistan so she can stay with family members in a remote town where she can come to her senses and “soak up the culture,” which basically means she’s being put through the domestic equivalent of a reform school for wayward women on how to become the perfectly obedient Pakistani housewife. (Interestingly, throughout Haq focuses more on “tradition” than on religion, per se, though clearly in Pakistan and elsewhere, where one ends and the other starts has become impossible to tell.)

Haq’s choice to not create any other fully rounded female role beyond Nisha doesn’t do the film any favors. Her mother and her equally nameless aunts are voiceless bystanders at best, screeching shrews bent on making the girl conform at any cost at worst. Because the other women lack complexity, there is no sense why or even how they manage to survive within a societal structure that’s not to their advantage, and it’s also unclear why they feel compelled to treat Nisha they way the do, as it makes them as much a part of an oppressive system as their husbands, fathers and uncles. It perhaps raises the dramatic stakes somewhat because Nisha is thus completely isolated, but what the narrative gains in tension, it completely loses in subtlety. 

Nisha’s naivete is also a problem; when, after some months, she falls for her generically handsome cousin, Amir (Rohit Saraf), the whole sequence plays out like an exact repetition of what happened with Daniel. Clearly, young girls should be allowed to fall in love, but the likelihood of her repeating exactly the same mistake again feels more like a narrative contrivance than a trap that a smart, headstrong young woman might fall into — especially considering how much she hates the punishment for doing it the first time around.

By the time Mirza threatens to throw Nisha off a cliff because she has shamed the family again, the film has definitely abandoned any attempt to understand those opposing the protagonist. Indeed, what should be the film’s lowest and most tragic point almost comes across as cartoon villainy.

Haq’s screenplay for I Am Yours was a wonder of observation and nuance about growing up between cultures, but her work as a screenwriter here is much less developed. Not only are all the other women caricatures without psychology, but even the father character never quite becomes an individual who exists beyond his tradition- and society-imposed thinking. Haq also doesn’t draw obvious parallels to the peer pressure existing in Norwegian teen culture, for example, where Nisha feels the need to dress right to fit in. And little is made of the dramatic irony that a repetition of the act that exiled her to Pakistan is the one that brings her back home to Norway.

That said, and as if to bookend the first act’s solid introduction to Nisha and her world, Haq finds a painfully sad but also visually striking way to end her story.

As the lead, Mozhdah, who was born in Pakistan but grew up in Norway, is at least the kind of spunky presence that audiences will want to follow no matter what. Most of her subcontinental co-stars, however, are Indian and not Pakistani, which might have something to do with the fact they filmed all the Asian scenes in Rajasthan, India. Cinematographer Nadim Carlsen and the two production designers naturally oppose dark and wintry Norway with the stuffy, sun-kissed locations of Nisha’s forced exile.  

Production companies: Mer Film, Rohfilm Factory, Zentropa Sweden, Beta Cinema
Cast: Maria Mozdah, Adil Hussain, Rohit Saraf, Ekavali Khanna, Ali Arfan, Sheeba Chaddha, Lalit Parimoo
Director-screenwriter: Iram Haq
Producer: Maria Ekerhovd
Director of photography: Nadim Carlsen
Production designers: Ann Kristin Talleraas, Vintee Bansal
Editors: Janus Billeskov Jansen, Anne Osterund
Music: Martin Pedersen, Lorenz Dangel
Sales: Beta Cinema
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)

In Norwegian, Urdu
106 minutes