Is Hala a Good Example of a Muslim Protagonist?
By Sumana Syed
When news spread about a film featuring a hijabi girl in the leading role, I got so excited. As a hijabi girl myself, seeing characters who look like me makes my heart warm and my faith in humanity grow higher. However, when I watched the trailer, the warmth started to melt away and was replaced by confusion, disappointment, and most of all, dejection.
At face value, Hala looked like a tale about an unconventional Pakistani Muslim-American teenager who skateboards, has a knack for poetry and writing, and still keeps the faith with her hair covered up. But when I finally got to watch the full feature myself (and was not disappointed by the skateboarding and poetry reciting), the faith part seemed to fall short for me.
To be honest, I didn’t dislike the film entirely. Sure, there were many parts that made me uncomfortable or just had me sitting there thinking, “What the hell did I just watch?” But there were a lot of parts that hit home for me, like how her parents would nag her endlessly or the guilt for doing things her parents disapprove of. Besides that, I didn’t really see myself in Hala (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) — which I didn’t expect to anyway since no two Muslim-American experiences are the same. Her character lacked development all throughout, and although some can argue the reasons why she made certain choices, it just seemed like she was going downhill and doing nothing to help herself.
And what answer did the film give us at the end? Hala living her best college life hijab-free.
That is the biggest bone I have to pick here when it comes to Hala.
The stereotype that girls who wear hijab are oppressed or unhappy with their lives is getting old. And yes, there may be some girls who actually feel that way, but we (as in Muslim filmmakers) aren't trying to feed a stereotype. We want to tell a story that represents us as strong-willed and empowering individuals, not as damsels waiting for her white knight in shining armor.
Speaking of ‘white,’ the ‘white boy savior’ trope needs to stop. What bothered me the most about this film and Hala’s character was how she leaned on Jesse (Jack Kilmer) as a crutch, to get her out of her oppressive and patriarchal household. In a spiritual sense, Jesse represents the source of Hala’s temptation and a source of escape from her reality, but the way he acted towards her was everything but. Sure, he was nice to her, but after they ‘broke up,’ he would always corner her and demand her to answer questions he shouldn’t ask since it doesn’t concern him. (Spoiler: she also asks her attractive English teacher if she could 'stay the night' at his house, since she didn’t want to go back home after an uncomfortable dinner with family friends, and she even attempts to sleep with him? Yeah, I don’t know either. At that point, I just paused and walked around my room going, “Why, Hala? WHY?!”)
Throughout this film, I slowly started to not really care for any of the characters — and got increasingly frustrated with Hala — except for her mother, Eram (Purbi Joshi). In my opinion, she was the only character who had actual development throughout the second act. When we are first introduced, the movie tries to convince us she's the bad guy because she’s strict and overprotective of her daughter, in contrast to her husband (Azad Khan), who's caring and soft towards Hala. This is pretty typical for a Pakistani household, but as we learn later, Eram acts like this for good reason. (I think other Pakistani-American girls can attest to this.)
However, we see the roles reverse once the second act starts, as we start to see Eram’s more caring and tender side when Hala’s dad started pushing the ‘patriarch agenda'. Also, there were various moments when he would say things about his wife, like how Eram was responsible for her daughter’s choices and her. (Spoiler: she divorces him at the end of the film. A win for moms everywhere.)
If anyone was being mistreated in this film, it was the mother, who had been putting up with her husband’s bull for years — his demeaning words, his lack of respect for his daughter and wife, and not to mention that he had an affair she knew about — and I’m glad she stood up to him, for her and her daughter.
To wrap this up, I'll answer the question in the title of this review: is Hala a good example of a Muslim protagonist?
As a Pakistani-American teenage girl, sure, her coming-of-age story is pretty well made. But as a Muslim-American teenage girl, this movie missed the mark by a long shot.
The only 'Muslim' part about Hala is that she wears a hijab, and the prayers she narrates at the beginning and end of the film. Nothing else about her in the film calls back to her faith, but the story centers around her cultural identity.
Even though that is an important aspect of finding herself and embrace who she is, when talking about how her experiences fit into the mold of a typical Muslim-American girl, Hala could have done a lot more.
Hala is now available to stream on Apple TV.