A few years ago, budding filmmaker Minhal Baig made a short called “Hala” about a Pakistani American teenager exploring her sexuality while growing up in a conservative Muslim household. Baig centered her story on the classic first-generation struggle of navigating adolescence with clashing cultural identities, filtered through the lens of Hala’s relationship with a white classmate. But after seeking feedback from others, Baig realized there was more to mine from Hala’s family dynamic.
So when the opportunity arose to adapt the short into a feature, Baig shifted gears.
“People go into this movie expecting that this is a movie about a romantic relationship, in which this young woman is going to forsake her family for a boy,” she recently told The Washington Post. “We know in real life that often doesn’t happen. What happens is you have a crush and you go through the experience of it feeling real – I’m in no way diminishing that experience – but it’s nowhere near the relationship [Hala] has with her mother and father. That is the subversion of the trope.”
“Hala,” a 94-minute film streaming on Apple TV Plus, might subvert expectations in more ways than one. In addition to its shift in focus to her home life, Hala Masood (Geraldine Viswanathan) is unlike many of the more brash coming-of-age heroines we’ve recently seen on-screen. “Hala” is a quiet, introspective look at a teenager who internalizes her emotional turmoil, of which there is plenty.
Although also raised in Chicago by Pakistani parents, Baig, who has written for the television series “Ramy” and “BoJack Horseman,” doesn’t consider the film to be autobiographical, but she said a lot of it rings “emotionally true for me.” Like Hala, Baig idolized her father because he “was more educated, could speak English and had assimilated more.” She described her relationship with her mother as more fraught due to the “tunnel vision” Baig had as a teenager. The realization that she grew up marginalizing her own mother was “a painful thing for me to confront in the film.”
Hala struggles to understand her parents as she witnesses their marriage fall apart but remains unable to voice her concerns to them. Baig recalled a frustrated audience member once telling her that they wanted to yell at Hala, “Go talk to your mom!” Baig’s response? She wishes she would have, too.
“Growing up, when I would watch movies and television and they’d portray families, I was really struck by how open everyone was,” she said. “In my home, so much was left unsaid and unspoken. . . . The tension of the film is all the things that are unsaid, and so much of that tension could be broken if she had a relationship with her parents where she could be more emotionally honest. That’s just not the case.”
Although Hala’s father, Zahid (Azad Khan), is endeared to viewers early on when he defends her love of skateboarding, he loses favor when he warns her of the “consequences” of dating after she comes home late one night and, later on, when he slaps her. When Hala discovers that he has been keeping his own damaging secret, her frustration escalates. She realizes, as Baig eventually did, how her mother, Eram (Purbi Joshi), has been mistreated.
Much of Hala’s inaction, Baig said, is influenced by a question Eram briefly raises in the movie: “Log kya kahenge?,” which from Urdu or Hindi directly translates to, “What will people say?” It’s a phrase that children of South Asian families might find familiar, and that Baig lamented.
“Your behavior and actions don’t just belong to you – they represent your family, they represent your community,” Baig said of the expectations accompanying the phrase. “I felt very boxed in because of that. . . . There’s multiple layers to ‘acceptable’ behavior, especially for a young woman.”
In a way, it parallels the burdens often shouldered by filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds, already highlighted by responses to the trailer for “Hala.” After watching it, some wondered on social media whether the film would be an accurate representation of Muslim culture, zeroing in on the trailer’s prominent promotion of Hala’s relationship with her classmate Jesse (Jack Kilmer).
That story line goes in a different direction than the trailer might suggest, as Baig was more eager to show a young Muslim protagonist who doesn’t want to abandon her parents, culture or faith as characters in South Asian American stories so often seem to do. But at the same time, she felt pressure to do her community a service by portraying it in a positive light.
The result doesn’t lean in either direction. It’s simply meant to be an honest portrayal of one girl’s life, inspired by a single filmmaker’s experience. “Hala” does feel quite specific, down to the way Hala speaks English back to her mother, who, throughout the film, only speaks Urdu.
“There are obviously going to be challenges to what it represents. That’s why it’s complicated,” Baig said. “I really do feel like making this movie was a process of healing for me, dealing with pain, and I think the community at large has pain, too. We need to, as artists, hold space for that pain and acknowledge it, but we also have to make things that are emotionally true and honest to us as individuals.
“Making a film for a community is something that I, as an individual artist, cannot do. . . . We have much work to do, as a business and industry, to accommodate and make sure there are many stories.”
The clear solution is to forge more pathways for artists from underrepresented backgrounds to tell those stories, Baig said, and that applies to every part of the creative process. “Hala” producers Overbrook Entertainment and Endeavor Content adopted an inclusion rider policy, which facilitated the hiring of women in leadership positions – all of the department heads were women, Baig noted – and other below-the-line roles.
“What we don’t talk enough about is that those perspectives below the line do affect the movie,” Baig said. “I wanted the film to be surrounded by female perspectives, not just mine. To go into a production meeting and see there are women all the way down the table, I’ve never been on a set like that before. It was a set we deliberately created, but it was because these were the most qualified people for the job.”
Along with the department heads, Baig singled out executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith, who “became a bit like a creative godmother,” as well as Viswanathan, who stepped outside her comfort zone with the role. The Australian actress’s background is comedy-heavy, as in her breakout role in 2018′s “Blockers.” Baig found that the discrepancies between Viswanathan’s adolescence and the one explored in the film allowed the actress to “find something in Hala’s story that was universal.”
Ultimately, though, “Hala” is most personal to Baig.
“Every project I’ve made is an act of vulnerability, because you put so much of yourself in it, and the hope is that people resonate with it and understand,” she said. “Making ‘Hala’ was the most terrifying thing because it was drawing from my own life, and I started to recognize the things I’m most afraid of are the things I need to approach in my work. If I’m not scared of something, I’m not taking a risk.”