"Hala" will open in select theaters on November 22, and be available to stream on Apple TV + starting December 6. This story was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Hala opens with a woman’s voice devoutly reciting a Muslim prayer. Cut to the next scene, and the protagonist is furtively trying to masturbate in a pink bathtub, as her mother bangs on the door, demanding to know what she’s doing in there. That dichotomy is central to this coming-of-age tale directed by 29-year-old Minhal Baig, a quiet gem nestled within the buzzy lineup at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Blockers’ breakout Geraldine Viswanathan plays Hala, a high school senior grappling with her burgeoning sexuality, family expectations, and her own tenuous relationship with her faith. As the daughters of Pakistani immigrants living in Illinois, she’s constantly sorting through the different sides of herself. At home, she’s the dutiful daughter who does crosswords with her lawyer dad (Azad Khan), and tries not to argue with her traditional mother (Purbi Joshi). At school, she writes beautiful and provocative essays, gossips and whispers with her friends, and daydreams about Jesse (Jack Kilmer), the cute boy she’s been secretly hanging out with at the local skate park. But increasingly, her worlds are colliding. With college looming, Hala’s trying to figure out who she is, devoid of obligations or prescribed roles. At the same time, she discovers something about her parents that threatens to upset everything she thinks she knows.
Baig, who also worked as a staff writer on Ramy Youssef’s acclaimed Hulu show Ramy, says she loosely based the plot on her own experience. “The story is fiction but it’s emotionally grounded,” she Refinery29 before the film’s first screening at TIFF. “There were certain moments in the feature with Hala and her mom that are very much lifted from my own life, but then there’s other parts or people that are composites.”
Produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith, Hala first made waves when it premiered at Sundance back in January, when it was among first films acquired by Apple for its upcoming streaming service. It was also an early adopter of the inclusion rider, which ensured that 75% of below-the-line roles were filled by diverse cast, and that women were hired as department heads.
Ahead, Baig tells Refinery29 about filming a masturbation scene through the female gaze, directing Viswanathan to act in a completely foreign language, and what Hala and Lady Bird have in common.
Refinery29: The movie opens with a voiceover of an Arabic prayer, and cuts to Hala masturbating in the bathtub. How did you handle shooting more sexually explicit scenes in a way that felt true to the character?
Minhal Baig: “The opening shot is diving head-first into who Hala is. She’s someone who is discovering her own sexuality and sexual agency. Geraldine and I worked very closely — I’m very sensitive to making sure it’s a closed set. She knows the blocking of the scenes, and what all the shots are, and how it’s going to edit together. We’d block it like anything else, so we’re not drawing special attention to it, and making sure that she’s comfortable. Same thing with the sex scene [later in the film]. It was important that both of the actors are aware that we’re going to shoot it in an economic and efficient way that moves us through the story, and that they’re aware of what parts of them are on-screen, and how close we are.”
Hala was originally a short film. Why did you decide to make it into a feature?
“I made the short in 2015, but it was really useful because one of the great lessons learned from that experience is that people really responded to the parents. They really wanted to know what their world was like, what was really going on. So, the feature shifted because of how people responded to the short. The love story in the feature is between Hala and her mom. [It’s] much more about her search for independence, but also making sure that she takes part of her culture, her faith, and practices and exercises them in a way that feels honest to her. Those things can all co-exist, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It was really important for me to [show] that she’s still searching for who she is,but also that she can be Pakistani-American, and Muslim, and Hala, all at once.”
It’s interesting that you mention her relationship with her mom, because that part reminded me so much of Lady Bird. It proves much room there is to tell very specific stories within those larger, more universal themes.
“When I watched Lady Bird, I loved that it was more about how she was reconciling her own independence with understanding the world of her parents and their struggles. In that movie, it’s about class. In this film, it’s about cultural and religious observance. In writing this story, it was very important to make clear: This is one person’s story, and one person in this specific diaspora. Everything she’s going through is very honest in her experience. Muslims are not monoliths, they all have different things going on, but I do feel like that [there is] a universal thing of you coming of age, and understanding that your parents are human beings and they aren’t just extensions of yourself, they have lives, they have interiority.”
How much of the movie is based on your own experience?
“There were certain moments in the feature with Hala and her mom that are very much lifted from my own life, but then there’s other parts or people that are composites. But in every scene, I would ask myself, Is this emotionally true? And that would set the stage for everything else.”
Half of the dialogue is in Urdu. What other specific details were important for you to highlight in order to make the story feel authentic?
“In the house, it was important that they have bits and pieces of the culture, but it wasn’t over the top and stereotypical. My parents’ home had a mix of Western things, and things that were more Pakistani-American, or religiously-influenced. So, the production design was important for that. But also Hala’s clothing. She needed to look like a modern teenager, and I didn’t want her to stand out so much that we are thinking that she’s an other. She’s not. It’s that these are multiple identities. Because she lives in America, of course she’s going to be influenced by American fashion, [like] the way she wears her sneakers — even the way she wears her hijab. Sometimes it’s messy, and it’s not perfect because she’s a teenager, and she’s in a rush, and she’s got places to be. In her room, she has the prayer rug and sometimes it’s out and she’s praying on it, and sometimes it’s stowed away. But her room is also like any other teenage girl’s. All those things were important when I would talk to the heads of departments, to make sure it all feels like everything you place in the rooms, everything they wear, has to feel like it has a story, and it came from somewhere real.”
What were you looking for in an actress for this role, and what about Geraldine stood out to you?
“This was a complicated role, because it had to be someone who could convey quite a lot with very little. She had to project all these emotional layers and depths, and when Geraldine sent her tape in, it was immediately clear she had all of that. But also she had other things. She has a very natural charisma, she has levity, and a lightness in her spirit, which I hadn’t even conceived of when I was writing. The character on the page becomes someone new when you shoot them, and you find the actor. Hala is a very self-serious teenager, but we needed somebody to convey her so we like her, and we can be rooting her on as the story moves forward and she makes mistakes, as teenagers do. Geraldine had all of that, and is [often] acting opposite a language she doesn’t know. She’s Australian, doing an American accent, also speaking Urdu in parts, and Arabic. It’s tough!”
You also worked as a writer on the first season of Ramy. How would you say Ramy’s experience is different from Hala’s?
“One thing that I find is that the experience of women, and I can only speak for myself — it was really challenging to grow up where we didn’t talk about sex, there was a lot of shame around certain subjects. And my family treated me and my sister differently than my brother. He had more license to do what he wanted to do, and he had more mobility. We had to stay in our lane, and there was a designated role for us. I think even Ramy [Youssef] would admit that he has more freedom than his sister in the show, even in a very surface-level sense.It’s parental concern, but it’s also this fixation on what the women are doing, and how they’re representing the family. Something Hala’s mom says to her is, “It’s about what will people say.” You’re not just a representative of yourself and our family, but the community too. Women have to think more about being judged.”
Hala was one of the first movies to use the inclusion rider. As a woman director coming up in the industry, did you face any kind of barriers to entry? How difficult was it to get the movie made?
“It’s been a journey with the movie. I’m really grateful that I came up when a lot of work has been done by female filmmakers to pave the roads for us, and I have a lot that I look up to. I was also working in this independent space where I would just shoot stuff. I shot the Hala short with friends from the [American Film Institute], with money I raised over Kickstarter, so I was always driven to make my own stories even if I couldn’t get them done in a more traditional, or studio-model. I think there’s more opportunity to make your own things. The challenges are more in getting people to understand that our perspectives are important, and that you need women behind the camera and not just in front of. You need people who have different life experiences. The people who have responded to this movie, they’re starved. They want them very badly. That’s what Hollywood at large needs to understand. There are whole demographics that are being underserved, and we can serve them better if you have people behind the camera who have stories to tell for those people.”