“There Are Casualties As You Search For Your Identity” Minhal Baig Talks ‘Hala’
Hala is a seventeen-year-old Pakistani American teenager and the subject of a coming of age film on Apple TV+. Creative Screenwriting Magazine caught up with Minhal Baig, the writer/ director behind this film which is more than the struggles that first-generation children of migrants face.
“Hala is a film about a young woman navigating multiple identities in search of her true self,” expounded Baig. It’s easy to shoehorn Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) into the familiar tropes of cultural clashes and teens torn between religious and ethnic loyalties. Although these themes are very much a part of Hala’s experience, they are not the main drivers of the movie.
“I didn’t set out to make a movie that was about a specific culture or faith. I wanted to make a film that was emotionally honest and true to what I went through. It was always a coming of age story first,” confirmed Minhal Baig. “It just so happened to also be about a Pakistani American and Muslim teenager.” The screenwriter differentiates Hala from other films that explore cultural clashes because they are more about people deciding between opposing sets of values. Hala is not torn between the two. “Her culture and faith matter very much to her.”
Rebelling against her traditional family values rather than focusing on the Pakistani American experience makes Hala a more universal and unique story. Baig chose to stay away from making larger statements about a particular ethnic group because “that’s not how I engage with storytelling. I need to start from a place of character, a specific person, and their experience.”
Minhal Baig certainly drew from her own life experience to make Hala Masood “very textured and real.”
Who’s Story Is It?
It’s all too easy for screenwriters to assume that this is exclusively Hala’s story. However, her mother Eram (Purbi Joshi) and father Zahid (Azad Khan) are also compelling characters with their own character trajectories. For Baig, the main character in Hala is dependent upon who’s watching the film. One viewer may relate to one experience more than another depending on how much of themselves they see in that particular character. Minhal Baig confessed that there are pieces of her in each character. She wouldn’t expand on which ones.
Although it was the intention of the screenwriter to be Hala’s story, Minhal acknowledges the non-traditional triad of main characters. “I wanted each of the supporting characters in Hala’s life to be multi-dimensional have their own lives. They’re not just there to prop up Hala’s story.”
The underlying coming of age theme forms the spine of this film. Eram (Hala’s mother) is going through her own coming of age story as she searches for her own independence. Zahid (her father) is also navigating two identities – the one he presents to his family and his relationship with Shannon Taylor (Anna Chlumsky).
“I wanted each of these characters to have their own stories which could be told from their own perspectives. Although we catch glimpses of their other lives, we mainly see them through Hala’s point of view.” This shows there are things that they know that Hala doesn’t. At the start of the movie, Hala considers her parents as extensions of herself. “By the end of the film, they’re fully realized human beings with their own wants and needs.”
Minhal Baig is reticent to label Hala a feminist film about female empowerment, although she doesn’t dismiss it. “The film deals with cultural patriarchy. It’s not Islamic patriarchy. Not Pakistani patriarchy. Just patriarchy. Cultural patriarchy exists across multiple cultures and isn’t specific to Islamic Pakistani Americans. Some version of this patriarchy exists all over the world including white America.” Baig explores this global theme locally. Zahid locks Hala and Eram in a cultural straitjacket which they both later break out of. Minhal also warns that the audience may subconsciously be putting Hala in a box by expecting her to be more compliant and reserved. “Hala chooses not to be the passive victim in her own story. She is active and there are casualties to her coming of age.”
At the start of the film, Hala idolizes her father and marginalizes her mother. By the end of the movie, she realizes that Eram is her biggest ally who is strong and quietly supporting her from the sidelines the whole time. “It is about mothers and daughters and women leaning on each other to become their fully-realized selves.”
Coming of age comes with growing pains. It comes with making poor decisions and acting out in search of that elusive life experience. Case in point, Baig discusses Hala’s decision to break up with her classmate, Jesse (Jack Kilmer). The screenwriter points out there are multiple layers to Hala’s behavior. “On one layer, Hala built up this relationship that wasn’t what she wanted, on another layer, there was too much going on in her life and in her home to handle it, and on a deeper, more psychological level, Hala doesn’t feel she’s worthy or deserving of love.”
Part of a teenager’s coming of age saga includes hurting people around them as they messily figure life out through trial and error. “Hala is put in a pressure cooker. There’s pressure from her family and pressure from herself to succeed. She blurs the lines between her internal and external self.”
Good Or Bad?
Minhal Baig refuses to define Hala as either good or bad. Hala is in search of her identity so not everything she does works to that end. “I don’t even think Hala’s father Zahid is bad despite his affair. He’s a complicated person. He’s a product of the patriarchy he was raised in.” Having Hala find out her father was having an extra-marital relationship allowed Hala to explore a range of emotions including confusion, anger, betrayal, and disappointment. Moreover, she can’t pass judgment on her father because she also acted out.
She didn’t simply confront her parents after she found out. “It needed to be more complicated than that.” This complication was further exacerbated when Hala shows up to her teacher’s house. “It was the most out of body moment for Hala. It even surprised herself. She seeks comfort from her teacher as she painfully learns about boundaries through her mistakes. She was at her most vulnerable at this point.”
It’s easy for screenwriters to fall into the trap of writing a screenplay too closely based on their diaries. “I started building Hala’s character from personal experience until she was no longer me.” Minhal points out that over-personalizing her characters isn’t a major issue in her screenwriting. “One of my problems in early drafts is that I try to protect my characters from harm by doing things that I wouldn’t do or wouldn’t approve of. Eventually, I need to divorce who I am as an artist from what a character does in the movie. Not everything a character does I endorse. It must be something a character needs to undergo for their story. At some point, I need to set my personal experiences aside because they can be limiting and set my characters free.”
Developing a screenplay is a long and arduous task. Baig wrote over thirty drafts of Hala before the cameras started rolling. “There was a major shift in direction in the middle of the writing process as I made Hala a more active agent in her story.” The last ten drafts focused on line by line, granular changes to sharpen each scene.
Minhal revealed many aspects of her own life in Hala, whether through fact or fiction. The plot threads that didn’t make it to the final cut centerd on her relationships with her siblings which would have constituted “story noise – noise worthy of their own stories, but still noise.”
Personal experiences aside, we asked Minhal Baig what makes a screenplay stand out. “All a story needs to do is make you feel. It could make you feel violently ill, or you’re sobbing at the end of the movie and you feel gut-punched. If a film challenges your emotions, it’s done its job.”
Additionally, Hala performs other social functions. “It’s a film that first-generation immigrant kids should watch with their parents because it bridges the generational gap. It allows these kids to say things to their families that they might not otherwise say.”
Hala has not reached her final destination at the end of the film. “She’s still on her journey. She’s figured out a few things but will go through so much more now that she’s going to college. College is a place of self-discovery among your peers rather than among your family.” Hala focuses on the tumultuous time between being a child living with your parents before you go away and become a fully-fledged adult.
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