BY RENU MEHTA, TORONTO: Hala, a film by US writer-director Minhal Baig was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 9. The film is about a teenager desperately searching for herself while straddling two very different cultures.
Australian actress, Geraldine Viswanathan plays Hala, an American Muslim teenager who is conflicted between her upbringing and relationship with her traditional Pakistani immigrant parents and her own independent desires. She finds her mother over protective and stifling whereas her father connects with her through crossword and encourages her education, communicating with her in English instead of Urdu. But both parents strongly agree on the issue of boys, a definite no no for Hala, that she nothing to do with them until an arranged marriage.
“It was incredible to do this film. Daunting at first,” said Viswanathan on September 9 about portraying a conflicted role, poised as she is on the threshold of womanhood in the film. “
Hala is drawn to Jesse (Jack Kilmer), a classmate who shares her passion for skateboarding and literature. The two begin secretly meeting, creating a crisis at home. Hala, in the process, also discovers her father having an affair and her parents’ roles begin to change, where she begins to empathize with her mother. She also violates the student teacher relationship reaching out to him with her sexually.
“Teenagers are weird,” said Baig. “She oversteps with the teacher. She’s suddenly discovering the power of her sexuality and doesn’t realize the consequences of her actions.”
The film has both English and Urdu dialogue. The writing process of the script, says Baig, was constantly evolving.
“The script was first written in English. Iram’s (the mother) dialogue was in Urdu and throughout the rehearsal process, we were revising the script continuously. We had an incredible scholar actually and we would constantly talk it out,” said Baig.
“It was such an interesting exercise,” said Viswanathan about following the dialogue in Urdu that her parents spoke in the film and responding to it. “You don’t realize how much is body language and how much is non-verbal and it was really fun. It meant that I had to know their lines were and what they are saying, so it was really interesting and I picked up some words at the end.”
At the end of the film, Hala goes to University and the camera shows her praying after which she steps out, removing her Hijab.
“She hasn’t figured it all out. She’s 17,” Baig said, explaining her version of the conclusion of the film. “She’s gone through a lot and there is a natural conflict between culture and faith. She takes an active choice between religion and freedom when she removes the Hijab.”
“Geraldine has done comedic roles in the past and it is amazing that she projected all that emotional depth into the character of Hala, bringing all that incredible lightness to Hala,” said Baig.