“What would people say?” - the most popular, and detested phrase that many South Asian young adults have heard at least once in their lifetime - is also a movie about a young Pakistani girl named Nisha whose family moved from Pakistan to Norway.
She is portrayed as a typical, westernized teenager: she parties, she smokes weed, she goes to clubs, and she dates. She appears as what the Desi community would define as a rebellious girl, bringing nothing but shame because of her “bad behaviors.” The movie unfolds with Nisha living her life in a western way while her family is deeply rooted in its desi traditions from back home, Pakistan. We immediately see the two sides in conflict when Nisha is asked to cover up, help her mom in the kitchen, and serve the guests.
The contrasting "ideals" of east and west are showed often throughout the movie. Right at the beginning of the movie when Nisha is walking on the street with her guy friend, she spots an auntie from the community. To avoid drama, she immediately distances herself from the guy friend and runs home. In another scene, while bringing sweets to her dad at the shop where he works, one of the visiting aunties made a comment about her being "dressed like that.” While Nisha was dressed modestly and showing a bit of belly skin, this was seen sinful from the community.
The weight of "what will people say?" takes precedence over all -- including allowing Nisha to explain herself. When Nisha's father catches her boyfriend sneaking into her room, he assumes the two did more than just kiss. Further to that, there is no chance for them to have open communication and clarify the situation.
For the sake of reputation
Nisha’s family stops receiving invites to events, parties, and weddings from their community. Raising the concern of “what would people say,” her father takes Nisha against her will to Pakistan, hoping the more rigid culture will “clean” his daughter of her “western habits.” No one, including her mother or brother, takes her side to “save” her from what will happen there. Instead, they agree.
This resembles so many stories I've seen in real life of my own friends, where the moment they would act “white” because they were dating a nonbrown person (or dating in general), they were suddenly taken back to their family's home country. Getting married off was the only solution to the problem to save the family reputation.
But it still wasn't 100% clear what the father’s intentions are for Nisha when he takes her to Pakistan: does he want to give her away for marriage? Does he want her to stay in Pakistan forever? What struck me the most is that even though her father seems loving and affectionate at the beginning of the movie, he's now indifferent to Nisha’s desire to go back home.
Once in Pakistan, Nisha is terrified, wanting nothing but escape. She finds respite in her new friends at her new school and even starts to fancy a guy who reciprocates her interest. However, this creates more trouble. After the police catch them in an intimate moment, the boy’s mother demands that Nisha’s father take her away from them. Nisha’s father soon after arrives in Pakistan to take her back home.
Two worlds colliding
Nisha may have been daddy’s little girl at the start of the film, but his personality completely flips upon returning to Norway, stopping near a cliff and ordering his daughter to jump off. He cries about the humiliation Nisha brought to their lives, and Nisha begs for forgiveness and to return home. At this moment, we realize how much more important reputation and honor are than the love one shares with their family. Nisha's father would rather kill one of his own children to save his face in the community.
Towards the end of the movie, we see that one day, as Nisha returns home from school, her parents set her up for an arranged marriage with a boy in Canada. While her father agreed that Nisha would continue her studies and work in Canada, the future in-laws disagreed, stating that Nisha’s job would be to be a housewife and raise kids.
She is not asked if she is ready for marriage or if she likes the potential candidate chosen by her father, but rather assumed to be okay with it and follow whatever is being told to her. She's treated as an afterthought, expected to be doing whatever she is told by her parents.
The brutal collision of two worlds is unavoidable. Broken and devastated by the situation, Nisha decides to chase her freedom. She escapes from her room, and as she’s running away from her old life, she turns back and makes eye contact with her father for the last time. He simply stares back, teary-eyed. The ending scene was so simple yet symbolic because it represents the story of many brown girls wanting to break free, wanting to break the cycle and live life on their own rules, boundless of cultural traditions.
The movie definitely touched on the themes of how young girls are supposed to be in the South Asian community: obedient, people-pleasing, and complacent. Often without giving much of a choice of speaking up.
The courage to break free
The movie definitely touches on many common topics among third-culture kids, like struggling to integrate into one culture while staying true and loyal to their parents’ cultures. Another layer in the movie is about how South Asian women are viewed by society: their expectations as daughters/sisters in a family, and their eventual role once they are married. Starting from its captivating title, I felt the movie was trying bring awareness to experiences many South Asian women go through.
From family betrayal, desperation, and finally hope, the movie was a rollercoaster of emotions. It almost felt that at some point, Nisha was a prisoner in her life, trapped in a cage with no escape.
So Nisha choosing her freedom at the end of the movie is such a realistic part that so many of us relate to. The decision to leave everything behind, sometimes including your parents, to live a life on your own terms is freeing. The strength of the movie was its message that it takes courage to break free, making the final scene the most powerful. It didn't need any lines, powerful enough with her escaping from a horrendous life and starting her new one without restrictions.
I highly recommend this movie to everyone, not only young South Asian people but also older generations as well as non-South Asians. Parents having girls growing up in a western society shouldn't have the expectation that the daughters will be traditional South Asian women, but be open to embracing whatever path they decide for their own life.
We need to be aware of the atrocity some women face, and the burden that women go through because of the “rules” that dictate their life. The movie will give a different perspective on south Asian girls as well as open the minds of many about how sometimes all it takes is openness to acceptance, communication, and integration in a community.
Urmi Hossain is a full-time female worker in the financial services industry. A big proponent of self-investing and continuous learning, she inspires others to do the same. Ambitious and enterprising, she has her own blog, Youtube Channel, and her first book, Discovering Your Identity: A Rebirth From Interracial Struggle, where she talks about her own struggle in finding her identity. She hopes this book shares the message that uniqueness is an asset and not a liability.
Houssan is an active participant in the Toastmasters club, hoping to give a TED Talk one day. She enjoys volunteering for causes around women's empowerment and giving back to non-privileged communities, and her hobbies include reading mystery/thriller books, trying new coffee spots, eating pasta, and practicing Muay Thai.
Her favorite quotation is "Be the change you wish to see in the world" by Gandhi.