Sundance: Minhal Baig on why her Muslim-American coming-of-age story Hala is universal
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival came to a close over the weekend, and distributors spent the 10-day fest snapping up the titles that we’ll be talking about all year.
Among them is Hala, from writer-director Minhal Baig. After the film premiered last weekend in Sundance’s U.S. dramatic competition, Apple landed the worldwide rights, marking the company’s first acquisition of the festival.
Expanded from Baig’s 2016 short of the same name, Hala chronicles the emotionally turbulent coming-of-age of a Muslim Pakistani-American teenager (Blockers breakout Geraldine Viswanathan) as she navigates her sexual awakening and contemplates her cultural identity during her senior year of high school.
For Baig, the film’s premiere marked a new chapter in the long journey of getting the highly personal project made. After spending some time at home a few years ago, “I was thinking a lot about that moment in my life, where it was the senior year of high school and I was starting to kind of break away from my family a little bit and started to act independently,” Baig tells EW. “That was something I wanted to document in the story. I didn’t know how exactly I was going to do that, but I knew it was going to be very personal. I didn’t have those stories growing up, for myself, and so I really wanted that for, like, the teenage me.”
Baig began writing vignettes “lifting details and conversations and moments literally from my life” — though the film is not directly autobiographical, and “Hala is her own character and she is not me, but there are parts of me in all of these characters” — and released the 14-minute Kickstarter-funded short in 2016. The feature script evolved from there, shifting its focus from Hala’s burgeoning romance with a classmate to her dynamic with her parents. “The most significant relationship in the film is with her and her family,” Baig realized. “So that story which was more on the periphery came to the center.”
“It was always going to be this universal story, but it was going to have these specific details and the nuances and complexity of that family dynamic that existed in my own home,” Baig says. “This is a coming-of-age story first, and it happens to feature a Muslim-American, Pakistani-American teenager. I really wanted to normalize that experience; I didn’t want it to feel like you can’t relate to it if you’re not from that background.”
The feature script made the 2016 Black List, and Baig found a producing partner in EP Jada Pinkett Smith. “She really responded to it,” Baig says. “It felt very personal to her. I think she was at the stage in her career where she really wanted to support emerging voices, and she felt like if she’s in the position to help a filmmaker who would not otherwise get their movie made, then she was going to do it if she loved their story and believed in the mission of the movie.”
Viswanathan was already on Baig’s radar before she’d seen a frame of Blockers; they had followed each other on Instagram and “stalked each other a little bit,” the actress says. Despite having spent her 2018 appearing in comedies, Viswanathan wasn’t searching specifically for a dramatic part to show off her range. “It’s so the beginning of my career that I think I wasn’t even thinking about [that],” she says. “I was really just reading scripts and seeing what I wanted to do. It was like, I love this script, and I want to work with Minhal. Let’s do it.”
Baig had seen Viswanathan’s dramatic work in a short film and thought “it would be very interesting for [her] to play a character who’s so internal,” especially following the raunchy Blockers and The Package. “And even with this character who takes herself so seriously, you need some levity and you need a little bit of light in there that’s like, she’s still a teenager,” the filmmaker says. “Watching [Viswanathan] I could always sense that [she was] a young person, wrestling things.”
Viswanathan loved that Hala “was an observer, that she kind of feels like she’s on the outside — which I also really related to,” she says. “I’ve played a lot of outgoing, very big characters, and I think she was just different.” After the premiere screening, however, “I felt so completely naked,” the actress admits. “It’s kind of incredibly vulnerable. There is this sense of isolation, and I think that is kind of relatable as a teenager.”
The familiarity of that teenage experience was paramount to Baig. “I think if you are Muslim — or South Asian, Pakistani-American — you’re watching this movie and hopefully you find it resonates with you and presents a little slice of your lived experience. But also if you’re not that, you start to see that the inner lives of these people are exactly the same,” the filmmaker says. “They’re wrestling with the same questions that anyone wrestles with, and it makes it less scary to know them, and I think that’s important in this time.”
In addition to the film’s specific cultural background, it is noteworthy for its female perspective, both in the sense of its filmmaker and its protagonist. This year, 40 percent of the films screening at the festival were directed by one or more women in a diverse lineup that “gave me chills,” Baig says. “The female perspective is important, and you need women to share those stories. And once you do, you’ll recognize that those stories are special because of that perspective.”
Hala will be released by Apple.