When we first see the 17-year old Hala, she is in the bathtub pleasuring herself. It isn’t the right image to introduce us to her. Hala is sexually curious, yes. But she is no libidinous adventuress. She is a calm, curious poetess, cruising the world on a skiboard, whose eyes convey the suffering of a soul far older and world-weary than she.
Somehow, the well-meaning but clichéd representation in “Hala” of a young Pakistani-American girl’s experiences never go beyond the tropes and the signposts. Conservative Pakistani parents, welcoming though culturally curious friends in school, liberal Caucasian friends in school — didn’t we see all of that in Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded By The Light” recently?
“Hala” does it with a far less blitheness of the spirit. It is a film weighed down by its own self-importance. In trying to sublimate the ‘message’ to a larger audience-acceptance of teen-angst writer-director Mihnaz Baig ends up doing the opposite of what she presumably intended.
Hala is a heavyhanded Pakistani-girl-coming-of-age story where the girl’s only problem, eventually, is her father, a bigoted Pakistani man who, as it turns out, is having a secret extramarital affair with an American colleague (luckily for the script, a female colleague).
The wife, played nicely by comedienne Purabi Joshi, reacts to the affair when her daughter discloses it, with an I-knew-it-all-along. Then the mom comes up with the big reveal. “I named you Hala. He’s lying about naming you. He wanted to name you Joy,” she reveals in Urdu.
Strange, the mother, after so many years in America can’t speak a word of English. Father is conveniently dumped out of the mother-daughter secret society and life moves on smelling of freshly plucked roses.
Any American émigré, specially from an over-conservative society, would tell you, diasporic crises are not easily solvable, and cultural assimilation is a myth. And yet in “Hala”, our Pakistani-American heroine’s dilemma of being courted by an American boyfriend, is reduced to a one-note crossword puzzle. The way “Hala” treats the love interest is downright distressing. Making it worse, some of her decisions thereafter are downright embarrassing in their inappropriateness. This girl isn’t in need of freedom. She needs a shrink.
By the time Hala threw off her hijab and walked into free air and sunshine (yes, there is a sequence where this happens literally) I was neither intrigued nor amused by Hala’s journey from domestic repression to academic freedom. I was simply bored.
Not a hint of racism anywhere in Hala’s life in America. Where in America is this film located? Disney’s Neverland? And though the troubled stormy but eventually empathetic mother-daughter relationship is clearly inspired by Laurie Metcalfe and Soirse Ronan in “Lady Bird”, “Hala” conveys none of the other film’s airy treatment of the troubled relationship.
More Lady Bored than “Lady Bird”, “Hala” is a disappointment. If you really want to see a film about a Pakistani-Asian girl’s attempts to overcome her cultural crisis in the Western hemisphere watch Iram Haq’s “What Will People Say”. That’s the film. [By Subhash K Jha]