Interview: ‘Hala’ director Minhal Baig on telling nuanced, Asian American coming-of-age stories
The last time that I truly felt represented on-screen was when I watched Minhal Baig’s Hala.
When Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) fights back against her mother, Eram (Purbi Joshi), for being too protective, restrictive, and often overbearing, it reminded me of my own teenage years. The way that Eram tried to teach Hala in her native Urdu, hoping to instill in her daughter all-important lessons that could only be taught in another language. The disconnect that Eram felt with her daughter, fearing that the American way would swallow her up and she would be lost. That nagging worry that Hala was going down the wrong path.
And then there was Hala: the Pakistani American teenager who really just wants to discover who she is on her own terms. She’s constantly writing poetry to express herself. She skateboards. She falls in love. For the millions of other Asian Americans trying to navigate through adolescence, Hala is a film that understands the nuances of managing two conflicting cultures while trying to embody both. But while most films about hyphenated identities completely reject one for the other, writer and director Minhal Baig’s take on identity lands somewhere in the middle. What results is one of the most truthful and captivating depictions of Asian American adolescence I’ve seen on-screen. Even though my own upbringing as a Taiwanese American didn’t exactly line up with that of Hala’s, Baig’s film struck a chord.
It makes sense that Hala is a film that rings so true for Asian Americans who see themselves in its titular character. For Baig, it was the film that she had always set out to make. Drawing from parts of her own emotional experiences growing up as a Pakistani American, Hala was Baig’s way of reflecting on her own upbringing and pushing forward her own truth as a filmmaker. Growing up, she realized just how many films “failed to capture the nuances of growing up as a child of immigrants, as a Pakistani American, and as a Muslim,” and she sought to change that with Hala–first with a short film of the same name before eventually securing the funding for a feature-length. Between the two projects, Baig worked as a music video director–for Kate Nash and Little Dragon, no less–and directing her first feature film 1 Night. Hala, however, is undoubtedly Baig’s best work yet.
Ahead of the film’s worldwide release on AppleTV+ on December 6th, 2019, I talked to director Minhal Baig about how the film came to be, her own relationship with her parents, and what’s next for the rising director.
Back in 2016, you released the short film, “Hala” which precedes the feature-length. Since then, you’ve established yourself as a director for different music videos, short films, and your debut feature-length film back in 2016. What made you want to come back to Hala?
So it’s interesting that you say “come back to” because the whole time I was trying to make this movie! I moved to Los Angeles in 2015, and the intention was to make Hala as a feature. I had written a script while I had been living at home with my family, and my father had passed away. We had gone to therapy once, literally once, and I think a lot of things came out of that session. The silent resentments and the family dynamic that I grew up with, and also moving back home after I graduated was just so clear–like I was reverting back to that state of being 18 years old before I moved away for college. It was still fresh for me, dealing with grief and coping with that loss of my dad who was very much the glue in our family. I started writing these childhood vignettes about what it was like to grow up in my family because I didn’t get to see that dynamic on-screen so much. I had seen a lot of movies and TV that depicted more open and emotionally available parents (and it’s not that my parents didn’t love me because they loved me a lot), but ours was the kind of love that is very unspoken and underneath the surface.
It’s in the things that they do and how they pay attention which I really wanted to get into a movie. And I wanted the movie to be about a young woman who was navigating these identities and figuring out for herself who she wants to be. But it’s going to be an internal struggle–it’s not going to be a bunch of people bullying her and saying you can’t be Muslim or you can’t be Pakistani American. Because that’s just not true to my experience and I also don’t sit in my otherness all the time. And I don’t think that Hala sits in her otherness. I think what she’s dealing with is more a universal thing of developing her own sexual agency and wanting to be her own person–but also wanting to hold on to her culture and her faith. Those are not things that we can just abandon. At least I can’t. I think that they are still an important part of my life and who I am today. If I didn’t have them, I would be a totally different person.
It came from that experience–writing those vignettes, developing this script–which eventually became Hala’s story. I moved to LA with the intention of making the feature. I intended to make the short as a proof of concept to gain financing. It just took a while. The short came out in 2016, I had a feature script ready and it was on The Blacklist in December of 2016. That following year in March or April of 2017 we got the financing. So I spent the summer soft-prepping and we shot in the fall. We edited, and by mid-2018 we were done. And we heard we were in Sundance last year around July or August. That whole time I was working on the movie. After Sundance, we got picked up by Apple which is an amazing experience because they really understood the global appeal of the movie. I was really drawn to that. We chose them because their pitch was very committed to pushing out this movie and making sure it got a release that it would otherwise not get.
Then we played the festival circuit and we’ve been going all over the country. We played overseas and in Sicily as part of the Taormina Film Festival and it’s been amazing to see different audience reactions. But what has been overwhelmingly the case is that most people are emotional watching the movie, even if their lived experience is not literally Hala’s life. I think there’s something in it for everyone because the characters are so different. And having it play AFI Fest… we’ve been wanting to play in Los Angeles forever. It was such a homecoming because the short film was made with AFI grads. So it was like a full circle return before the release of the movie because the AFI students who graduated in 2015 helped me make that short film which led to the feature, which is amazing. I’m really grateful. It’s taken a long time to get here but I’m happy and it’s been emotionally cathartic for the film to finally be out there soon for the public to engage with.
Did you experience any pushback from financiers in order to get the film made?
I think that when I was writing the film and we sent it out to financiers at first, there were some initial responses from people who are not Muslim that the film wasn’t Muslim enough… which I found very striking. I think that some people wanted the movie to speak more directly on the subject of being Muslim in America or being Pakistani American. I wanted to avoid that in the movie. I don’t want a movie where Hala struggles about abandoning one set of values for another. It’s not West vs East. It’s not about being Muslim vs being secular or Pakistani vs being American. That’s a reductive way of thinking about identity, and that’s not true to my experience.
I think it’s more complicated because when I was young, I was just navigating my own self. I was trying to figure out how to not stand out but also be true to who I am. I think that it’s somewhere in-between. That’s what Hala is dealing with. I think that that was maybe too nuanced for some folks to get–not because they’re not capable of intellectually understanding it, but because they haven’t had that lived experience. They project that others constantly think about their otherness and their identity, and that’s not how people live. I wasn’t bullied for being Muslim. I wasn’t bullied for being Pakistani American. Of course, there are experiences I had that were less than stellar, but I don’t think they were life-defining in the way that some people might project it to be. The biggest obstacle in coming-of-age is self. It’s about your own journey and reasoning with one’s self and figuring out, “Am I doing things because people want me to be doing them?” or “Am I doing them because I want to be doing them?” That was the pushback. That this was just not enough of one thing or another. This family is strange because they speak English and Urdu. This family is strange because she prays but also does this. Those things are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist in one family, and they can coexist in one person.
I really wanted at least three characters: there had to be more than one Muslim and more than one Pakistani American. It was a family and each of them is going to be very different from each other. They are not just one thing. Eram is not just an overprotective helicopter parent. She is actually capable of great compassion and great support. And Hala’s father is not perfect either. He can speak English and engage with [Hala] intellectually, but in many ways, he can be fallible. Hala’s also not perfect. She is very self-serious and considers herself to be smart and emotionally intelligent, but then there are other times where she is acting like a child. There are moments in the movie where you are reminded of that. Once I had all these aspects of these characters, I felt really confident that this movie would resonate with people.
I really do hope that more financiers take on projects where there are complicated portrayals. They’re not just what we assume or expect minorities to be, or, minorities in relation to whiteness. A big part of the film is Hala’s relationship with her family, and they’re not white so she’s not performing something for them. She’s performing for them because they’re her parents. But that’s separate from the racial part of it or the faith part of it. That’s just life and that’s being a human being.
How similar was your experience to Hala’s in regards to your relationship with your family?
When I was a teenager, I really did just feel like my mom was on my back and that she was just being on my case for no reason. Now I look back and I think about how much my mom protected me and was trying to prepare me for the world outside. But I just wasn’t hearing her, because I was 18 and in my own world. I think that because the movie is from that perspective we have to see that lens in the beginning. And then we shift because the perspective is widening a little bit and [Hala is] learning a little bit! The big turning point for me in Hala’s relationship with her mom is the scene with her in the car after they’ve shopped.
Suddenly Eram is accusing Hala of shutting her out in all the things that she’s done for her. I remember my mom saying these things and I was so over it. I wasn’t hearing her. But when Eram is saying all of that in that scene, it’s coming from a place of pain. And part of it is envy because she’s seeing her daughter live out a life of greater freedom than she has personally experienced. Also, this pain of feeling, “My own daughter doesn’t respect me even though I’ve provided a life for her so that she can be this person that she is now.” I just wasn’t thinking that at the time because I’m in my own head! Now watching that scene, it’s painful because I relate so much to Eram’s character. I really do understand that it can be hard to leave your country, set up shop and feel like you just have to adapt to a different way of life. There’s sometimes no one around to help you navigate that experience. And then your own kids are more adapted than you are. It hurts. In that scene, she’s getting mad at Hala about all these chores, but what she’s really talking about is, “I’m in pain because I feel like you don’t respect me, and further, that you don’t love me….that you’re embarrassed by me and you wish that you had someone else as your mother.” And there were times when I thought about that! There were times when I was my mom’s translator going with her places and I would get so frustrated because I did get embarrassed.
Look, we’ve all been there. It’s a human thing that you get embarrassed with your parents. In this specific case, it was being a translator and feeling like I have to do so much of the job of just communicating. As I got older, I realized that it’s not like my mom liked being in that position. She felt like she had to rely on her own daughter to get around in the world… that’s not fun either! Seeing the other side of it and being on the other end of it, I can relate so much more to Eram’s experience now even though I’ve lived through Hala’s experience. So much of that–being an adolescent–I’m more cognizant of how I treated my parents and I have a greater appreciation for them in the process of writing this movie. It was a process of healing, of understanding that I did marginalize them in some ways and that I owe them more than I gave them.
Has your mother seen the film? What did she think of it?
She hasn’t seen it yet, but I’m hoping to have it so that she can watch it on her own. I do think that it would be hard for someone like her to go see it in the theater. It’s just because she knows who made it. It’s a different experience when you know the person who made the movie because you know that the person who made it has been thinking about their life that you were a part of. So she hasn’t seen it yet but I’m interested to know what she thinks and feels because I do think that it’s quite humanizing for Eram’s character. I think that a lot of the last few years has been about understanding that point of view. I do think that it does eventually come around to where even though it takes some time in the movie–you have to be patient with the movie–to see it get there. But honestly, I’m kind of terrified… but we’ll see!
In the film, skateboarding and poetry are Hala’s way of navigating her adolescence. Did these activities play a part in your life as well?
I used to be on the slam poetry team in high school! I was the alternate. I didn’t compete. I was writing poetry before I was writing prose and prose before I was writing screenplays. Poetry was where it all started. I wanted a way to get inside Hala’s psychologically via her poetry.
With my dad, it wasn’t crossword puzzles but it was spelling bee words. I competed in schoolwide competitions and city-wide competitions. And on the back page of the Chicago Tribune, they would have all the words that they would use so he would have me spell words in the mornings with him. I remember that being a very emotional time because I cherished those times with my dad. We got to share something together. And the other thing which I think was really true to life was that my family had no sense of privacy growing up. I feel like you just weren’t entitled to it because you’re a young person. So I would often retreat to the bathroom not because I needed to use it but because it’s the only place in the house where someone wouldn’t just walk in on you and bother you. At the beginning of the movie when she’s in the bathtub, a part of it was, “I literally just need to be in my own space sometimes,” and I didn’t even get to have that in my own room because we had to leave our doors open. My parents would just barge in because those were just the rules in our house.
I would seek solace in poetry and writing a lot. I think that so much of my high school experience was trying to live more externally and not be so inside of my own head.
Now that you’ve completed Hala, what’s next for you?
I’m starting to write on a TV show in two weeks which I’m really excited about. It’s really different from anything that I’ve done before. It’s an hour-long sci-fi fantasy world, so I’m working on that. There’s a project that I’ve been working on that’s set in Chicago and it’s a period piece that I’m hoping to shoot next. It’s a different community that I’m not a part of and I’ve been doing a lot of work this year to understand it and really listen to the stories of the people who’ve lived through it. That’s been more of a journalistic thing. Hala was very much my story. It’s very personal and in some ways, it was extremely easy to get it out there. This story has been more of a process of listening to other people’s stories, which has been really rewarding in a different sense. Fingers crossed!
Since the film is so centered around poetry, I’m curious–do you have a favorite poet/poem that everyone should read?
Yes! There’s a poet that Hala quotes in her walk with Jesse, and it’s a poem by Anne Carson who is one of my favorite poets of all time. Her work is phenomenal.
All photos courtesy of AppleTV+. This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu, in-person, in Los Angeles on November 19th, 2019.