Minhal Baig on the Journey of 'Hala,' From Sundance to Apple TV+

Writer and director Minhal Baig - Getty - H 2020
George Pimentel/Getty Images

Baig took risks in telling a deeply personal story for her first feature that then was embraced by the independent film community and tech giant.

"People have asked me, ‘Did you intend to make a Muslim story?,'" Minhal Baig tells The Hollywood Reporter of her feature film Hala.

“And I said, ‘No, I intended to make a coming-of-age story about this specific young woman who happens to be Muslim and Pakistani American.’ And people are like, ‘Wait, don't we say the same thing?' No, it's different. It's interesting how people don't realize that different.”

For all purposes, Baig’s movie, drawn from some personal experiences but not, as she explains, an autobiographical retelling of her own teen years, is an American story. Hala Masood (Geraldine Viswanathan) is 17 years old, loves to skateboard, is figuring out how to write her personal essay for college applications and grapples with her blossoming sexual desires as she harbors a crush on a cute classmate, Jesse (Jack Kilmer), who shares her love of poetry and skateboarding.

The only difference — if it is even a difference — is that Hala wears a hijab and growing up in a strict Muslim family, must adhere to their customs and rules about not mingling with boys. Her relationship with her mother is fraught as the two women find themselves growing apart with their life experiences diverging (Hala’s mother, Eram, only speaks Urdu), while her father, who has his own secrets, starts to make plans to arrange her marriage as he grows concerned about her friendship with Jesse. 

“It was always this coming-of-age story about a girl that happens to have these identities,” Baig explains. “It's not society telling her she can't wear the hijab, and no one tells her to do that in the movie. I don't want to portray a character who's constantly sitting in her otherness, because I don't sit in my otherness every day.”

Baig, 30, grew up in a Pakistani American Muslim household with her brother and sister in the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago, where her father worked at a blood bank and her mother was a homemaker. She first wrote and directed the short film Hala in 2016, and her script landed on the Black List. The full-length feature came into place with backing from Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment (Pinkett Smith is an executive producer on the film), and premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2019, quickly becoming a hot acquisition title.

While there were plenty of studios and streamers scouring Sundance for content, it was a new platform with a familiar name that piqued Baig’s attention. 

“It was maybe 48 hours after we first premiered the film and I heard from our sales team that Apple wanted to make an offer,” she says. “My first reaction was, ‘Apple's releasing movies?’ and then, ‘Why do they want this movie?’”

Indeed, Apple was looking to build up its library of series and films ahead of the launch of its streaming platform, the tech company’s foray into the competitive world of original content. It was Matt Dentler, Apple’s head of original feature film, who persuaded Baig to let the company buy the worldwide rights to her movie, which included a limited theatrical release and wide release across the new streaming platform. 

Apple has had a rocky start with its original film content as one of its first movies, The Banker, was derailed by sexual misconduct allegations against one of the film’s co-producers, who happened to be the son of the film’s main subject. Apple was forced to delay the film’s November premiere and December release as the co-producer stepped away from the project. The Banker has since been rescheduled for a March theatrical and streaming release. 

Hala, meanwhile, rolled out smoothly with a limited two-week theatrical release in late November before hitting the Apple TV+ platform Dec. 6, where it sits alongside documentary The Elephant Queen on the streamer’s movies page.

Baig, who spent her early years going to a local cinema to watch Bollywood movies with her family before it went out of business, said the theatrical release was important for the “communal viewing experience.” But she also wanted her film to be accessible to the masses.

“I want anyone who wants to watch this movie to be able to watch it,” Baig says. “I need for it to be available to people in a way that most specialty distributors make it difficult to watch their movies.”

Apple was “the most aggressive with their offer,” and while Baig knew it was a risky move to go with a company that hadn’t even launched its platform, she felt enough confidence in the brand name and reputation. “I like that Hala was going to be one of the few things that they were releasing and they were going to put a lot of care behind that release, whereas as opposed to a larger streaming service where they have so many more releases to deal with and they have to allocate the resources,” she explains. 

But ahead of the November theatrical release of the film, Baig encountered a backlash she wasn’t expecting. Many members of the Muslim community took to social media to criticize the film’s trailer, saying it depicted the trope of an oppressed Muslim girl being liberated by Western culture. “The trailer remains troubling because of the continued portrayal of Muslim girls who wear hijab as oppressed, struggling females who suffer under family and societal burdens. While the trailer is only a little less than two minutes, the general theme seems to be heading toward her struggling to stay true to her religion,” wrote The Muslim Vibe

“Muslim women are not owned by their communities,” Baig argues. “We're not here to perform things to make a community look good, feel good. That's not our job.”

Instead, she says Hala looks at the pressures that a young Muslim American woman faces while growing up. Hala’s mother Eram asks her at one point, “What will people say?” — Baig calls it “insidious — and it’s something that women continue to face regardless of their faith or their culture.”

These themes are explored in Hala, where Baig’s protagonist questions the double standards that men and women are held to, especially as she discovers her father’s secrets. It’s a discussion that she and her mother engage in as they bridge a cultural divide that has been wedged into their relationship.

And it’s a larger issue, she believes. “The denial of individuality is like, the most offensive and un-feminist thing. It's not fair to any of us to sort of represent a larger whole in that way. We don't put that kind of pressure on anyone else. We don't expect men to do that,” she says. “It always comes back to chastity and sexuality and sexual agency. We don't as a culture, we have less of a problem of men doing the same things in media, literally the same things. And I know this because I've worked on media that covers literally the same things. But it's a male protagonist and we don't have that energy because we're OK with that.”

After Hala, Baig, who has written on shows such as Ramy and Bojack Horseman (Bojack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg was so impressed with Hala that he asked Baig to write an episode for season six), is lining up her next steps.

She’s co-producing and writing Netflix’s Mark Millar sci-fi series The Magic Order, and as a self-described sci-fi nerd, she hopes to be able to work across a variety of genres, writing a variety of characters. 

“For Bojack, I wrote an episode about Todd and his background and the assistants’ strike, and those two things are deeply personal to me, but it's not specific to my South Asian-American experience or even my Muslim experience — that was just a story that I felt really connected to,” she said.

“I've maybe had a very charmed experience where people aren't coming to me necessarily because of my background, but they're coming to me because I write certain kinds of characters in certain kind of stories in a very specific and humanistic way.”