Norway’s official entry to Oscars 2019 is the story of a young Norwegian girl of Pakistani descent getting kidnapped by her own parents and being sent to Pakistan after they find her boyfriend in her bedroom one evening.
The story is based on its director Iram Haq’s own life. It took Haq—now 42—several years to come to terms with what happened with her as a teenager and then finding the courage to share her story with the world.
In a freewheeling chat, Haq talks about reconciling with her father before his death, working with Indian artistes on the film and why she doesn’t care about ‘What Will People Say.’
The film is autobiographical. How difficult was it bring to screen one of the most harrowing experiences of your life?
It took me a long while to find the courage to dare to tell it, and then tell it in a way that you understand the parents’ point of view as well as the girl’s. It is important that the audience understands both the generations. It took me many years to be ready to tell the story in a wise way.
Why was telling this story so important?
It’s not just my story. It is so many other women’s story too—those who are honour-killed, kidnapped, put down, not allowed to speak. After making this movie, I feel like if I can, others can too. I want other women to have a voice.
It makes me very happy that I dared to do this because I was very afraid to tell this story. Now that it is out there, there are so many other women who can relate to it, who have come to me and shared their experiences. Hopefully parents and other people learn from it too and not judge or put girls down. This film has given me courage to dare to do more.
What was the most difficult bit about making What Will People Say?
Writing was the hardest part. To write it down in a way so that it became this story. I wanted to express myself but it took a while to get there.
Did you manage to show it to your father? What was his reaction like?
My father and I were not really in touch and then just while I was writing this script, he fell sick. I went to visit him and he said sorry for what he did. He got cancer. We became very close to each other. I learnt so much from that relationship.
He really wanted me to tell this story because it has so much to do with how evil people can become when they are full of fear. He was really proud and wanted to come for the red carpet but he died. It made me stronger knowing that he wanted me to do this too.
How did you find Maria Mozhdah, your lead?
Finding her was tricky because it had to be a girl from Norway who had an immigrant background. This was a very controversial film for many immigrants there so we looked for a girl for 1.5 years and then suddenly Maria came. She was just amazing. She plays 17 in the film and this is her first feature but she is brilliant.
The film also has Adil Hussain…
He is a fantastic actor and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. He is such a talent. He puts so much of himself into every role. He gave the character all the colours I wanted and then some more.
Other than Adil, you also worked with an Indian producer, production designer and a costume designer for the film?
And so many more. There are so many other Indian actors in the film—Rohit Saraf, Sheeba Chaddha, Lalit Parimoo. We had a huge Indian crew—about 100 Indians. We shot half of the film in Udaipur and Ajmer in Rajasthan.
Were you worried that there could be resistance from the Muslim community?
I was very aware but this film is not necessarily about a Muslim issue, it’s more about social control, about the fear of what will people say, which is such a South-Asian issue. I wanted to portray something I grew up with, I wanted to tell my story.
Yes, I was afraid of racism. So I wanted the audience to understand the parents’ view too—that they are also in a jail, are not happy with the situation and are struggling as much. It’s a story about humans who love each other but can’t make it work because there is a constant conflict of generations, cultures, genders.
How has the response been from fellow Muslims?
Young people have responded very positively to the film. Many people, especially women, can relate with the story. However, there are also voices—not necessarily Muslims—who don’t like this, don’t believe that this is happening. But then there will always be people who don’t like what you do.
The film is Norway’s official entry to the Oscars. Did you expect such wide recognition?
Never. My only focus was to tell a good story in a good way. Everything that came after was a bonus. I am super happy and thankful.
What’s the way forward?
I am reading new scripts, having meetings in Scandinavia and the US. It’s too early right now to talk about any specific projects.
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