By Monica Castillo
Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age drama Hala is an intimate look at the experience of growing up as a Muslim-American teenaged girl in America. In addition to normal teen anxieties like worrying about college and fitting in, Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) also has to abide by her conservative Pakistani parents’ rules. For example, Hala is not allowed to stay out late or hang out with boys, even at the skatepark she often frequents. So when she starts to develop feelings for a classmate, she has to manage this new set of emotions with her parents’ expectations.
Hala is about someone finding their voice and identity, a universal concept. But the film also captures an experience rarely told on-screen. There’s so much nuance in Hala’s story, enriching the movie with details that feel relatable to just about any first or second generation child of immigrants.
Hala earned thunderous reception at its Sundance premiere over the weekend, so much so that Apple acquired the film’s global distribution rights a few days later — marking the tech giant’s first purchase at the festival. MTV News spoke with writer and director Baig about her experience making the movie, working with Viswanathan to develop the character, and writing Hala’s story.
MTV News: At the premiere, you Facetimed your mom and said she didn’t know you had made a movie and that it played at Sundance. I have to ask, how did you keep a secret like that from your mom?
Minhal Baig: Well, it’s easy to keep a secret when your mom doesn’t have a smartphone, doesn’t use the Internet, and doesn’t watch American TV or movies. That certainly helps. In the process of writing, it was really personal for me, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t thinking the entire time how my family would feel about it. Because I think that would add another layer. I would always be worried, “Is this OK?”
I’m sourcing some things in this movie that are difficult to talk about. Especially inside of my own family, so much is unspoken and unsaid, and I think it would have been hard for me to tell my mom and then worry about how she’d receive the movie. What I want to do is tell Hala’s story as honestly as possible and do justice by her and do right by the movie. And then, tell my mom at some point.
MTV News: Were there any moments you decided that it would be better to differentiate it from your family?
Baig: In writing it, it was important for me to distinguish that I am not Hala. Hala’s a character. She is wrestling with many of the same issues that I was wrestling with, but the story is fictional. My mom is not the mom in the story. My dad is not the dad in the story. They are all composites of people. There are pieces of my mom in many of the characters. There are pieces of me in many of the characters. Many of the details and the texture of the story in the backdrop are lifted from my life. It’s set in Chicago, where I was born and raised.
The language they speak at home is Urdu. Eram (Hala’s mom, played by Purbi Joshi) and Zahid (Hala’s dad, played by Azad Khan) speak Urdu to each other. Eram speaks Urdu to Hala. Hala answers in English every time. Hala only speaks to her dad in English. So, that dynamic is really important for me to have in the movie because it speaks to how she feels about her parents, but her own connection to her culture.
Hala director Minhal Baig
MTV News: In a lot of coming-of-age stories, the girls are kept very asexual or just have a crush and nothing else happens. In Hala, it’s not just a crush but she has sexual feelings and acts on those feelings. What made you decide to include that in the story?
Baig: It was hard when I was writing it because I was feeling very vulnerable. The way I was raised, we didn’t talk about sex in our house. It was difficult to even write it. I came to realize that I needed to include it in the story because it felt honest to Hala’s journey. That is who she is and that’s a part of her life.
I wanted young women who watch the movie to feel like this is a thing that happens during your life, and you may not be able to talk about it with your family. I think if they don’t get to see that, then it’s almost like I’m skipping the hard part. When I was younger, my parents would skip through the sex scenes [in movies] because they were trying to protect us. That’s good at a certain age, but as I grew older, I felt like it was something I wanted to talk to somebody about. I want young women to be able to watch the movie and really feel like oh, that is me and I am a sexual being. And I have my own sexual agency. And masturbating and having sex, those are things that young Muslim women do.
MTV News: Is there a scene that you particularly enjoyed filming the most?
Baig: I think the sex scene was important for me in writing the story and then directing it. I’ve seen a lot of sex scenes where it’s the male gaze, so, it was really important for us to stay with her and experience it as she experiences it. And it’s uncomfortable. It’s absolutely uncomfortable. It’s tough because she’s going through. It’s hard when you have all these expectations of what that experience would be like, and it doesn’t match up. It’s devastating but also kind of funny at the same time.
I heard the audience laughing and I really appreciated that, because I do think that’s absolutely how one would react seeing this unfold. But also that, for her personally, something has changed where she recognizes that this magic which she thought was going to just come so naturally, does not.
MTV News: It does feel like Hala’s a little resentful of her culture at first, but then at the end, she’s kind of at peace with it and reconnects with it in her own way.
Baig: It was important to show that Hala is not rejecting her faith or her culture. I think it’s really complicated – especially for first generation Muslim-Americans. We’re almost living in two worlds, and we’re trying to reconcile this. Because we live in America, and but we also have our faith. It’s important to be able to also be true to ourselves. In Hala’s story, it was important for her, near the end of the film, to know that her relationship with her faith and her culture may not be the relationship that her parents have to their faith and their culture. It’s her own and on her own terms.
MTV News: There’s this beautiful love story of Hala falling for Jesse (Jack Kilmer), the scenes of them walking and talking about poetry. How did you come up with it?
Baig: That was very much pulled out of my own life. I really wanted Jesse to be someone who was meeting Hala at her level. They share interests. I wanted to show a young man who’s sensitive and a very empathetic person, but he’s also still a teenager.
I wanted that story to be very realistic. Hala has so much going on at home that he doesn’t know about, and she pushes him away at a certain point. I think there’s anticipation for that relationship to have this magic and this “We’re going to run away together” sort of feeling. The reality of many of these relationships at that age is that there’s this magic at this moment, and it’s very special, and it can be very fleeting.
MTV News: What was that like working with Geraldine Viswanathan to develop Hala?
Baig: Geraldine is an incredibly talented actress. She is known for comedic gifts, but in this film, she really demonstrates all of her dramatic chops. She has something that is very unexpected. When I was looking for Hala, I may have been looking for something that I envisioned in my head. When Geraldine came into the picture, the character became something different. I recognized that so much could be communicated without saying anything because she is so expressive. And there’s so much going on underneath the surface when you’re looking at her.
Geraldine brought levity to Hala. I think teenagers like Hala at that age are very self-serious and are worried about the grand dramatic questions of life, of what do I have to say? And is anything that I say even important? Or has it not already been written? That’s heavy existential thinking for a teenager.
Hala star Geraldine Viswanathan at Sundance.
MTV News: You also used an inclusion rider (a contract clause that guarantees a certain amount of diversity on set) for Hala. What’s that like to put into practice?
Baig: I wanted women at the table because I want the female perspective at the table. This is a young woman’s coming-of-age story. It’s absolutely important to have women all over the movie. So, when we were hiring department heads, I had every intention of hiring the best candidates. They were all my first choice hires. No one passed on the film.
It was absolutely incredible because all these women came together and made this movie. I wanted women to surround the film to challenge me and make it better, and to make it more authentic. Because I do think it’s their story too. When I’m hiring people, I’m hiring them for their lived experiences and their perspective. You can be a cinematographer, but you have a point of view on a story. Every single person that was hired — Carolina Costa, our cinematographer; Sue Tebbutt, our production designer; Mandy Hoffman, the composer; Saela Davis, the editor — all of these women filled the movie with all of that life.
I have to say that it was an incredible experience working with so many women. I went to a production meeting and it’s all women, and I’ve never been on a set like that before. Everyone was listening to each other. It was incredibly collaborative, and it’s open. They are incredibly good at their jobs. Inclusion is really important because you need different voices and perspectives to make the story better. I don’t think it’s more difficult to hire women. I think you need to make an effort. You need to ask around and look outside your immediate social circles and ask for reels and resumes and recommendations. It’s well worth it because it makes the movie better.
MTV News: And one of the women who joined your production was Jada Pinkett Smith. How did she join your movie?
Baig: For Jada, it was also a really personal story. She felt like she really wanted to support an artist who would not otherwise get resources or be able to share their story. So, when Jada came on board, I pitched her the movie and she watched the short, and she felt like it resonated with her. It was kind of immediate after that. She wanted to support me in whatever way she could and pool her resources for me. She was also very much like, “I trust you. You’re the director. You know what you’re doing.”