Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Minhal Baig on her new film ‘Hala’: 'I wanted to see a movie with the dynamic that was in my home'

The Apple+ movie tells the story of a 17-year-old Pakistani-American woman and her struggle to balance her familial, cultural and religious obligations

Minhal Baig, the writer-director of 'Hala', says there is no better place than Apple TV+ for 'Hala'. Getty.
Minhal Baig, the writer-director of 'Hala', says there is no better place than Apple TV+ for 'Hala'. Getty.

In order to provide her film and its characters with powerful and resonating depth and detail, writer and director Minhal Baig took a long trip down memory lane to draw upon her own past experiences.

The result was Hala, which tells the story of a 17-year-old Pakistani-American woman, and her struggle to balance her familial, cultural and religious obligations. It all becomes even more complicated when Hala discovers a huge secret that threatens to destroy her family.

“There’s parts of me in all of the characters, not just Hala,” insists Baig. “In many ways we are different, but I wanted to share this woman’s coming of age story and how she navigates these identities.”

The writer and director actually began work on Hala in 2013, after she moved to Chicago to live with her mother and two siblings following the death of her father. This emotional period saw her reflect on growing up with such a specific and unique family dynamic. Especially since this was something that she had never actually seen depicted on-screen before.

“I wanted to see a movie that had the kind of dynamic that was in my home,” she says. “Everyone is so emotionally open in family scenes in films and TV. Parents are making an effort to understand their ­children’s emotional well-­being. But my parents always felt we were OK, and that we didn’t need much in that respect. In reality I felt like we couldn’t share.”

What started out as a series of vignettes and scenes soon formed into a semi-­autobiographical script, one which Baig knew opened in a “very familiar” vein to other coming of age films, but was complicated because of Hala’s background and her family.

Not only did this mean recalling particularly tense conversations with her ­mother, but also her own years as a teenager when she didn’t even see her “parents as human beings”. Instead, they were just “extensions” of herself, who were “supporting characters” in her life.

Geraldine Viswanathan plays a 17-year-old Pakistani American teenager grappling with her identity. Courtesy Apple TV+
Geraldine Viswanathan plays the titular character. Courtesy Apple TV+

Ultimately, the script landed on the 2016 Black List, a yearly survey of the most popular screenplays not yet produced, and when it eventually got in the hands of Blockers and Miracle Workers star Geraldine Viswanathan, she was so enamoured by the part that she decided to bombard Baig with “numerous” audition tapes. “I was really intrigued by Hala’s observation. She just feels like an observer of life. She is just really deep and poetic and romantic,” says Viswanathan. “There’s a real quiet strength to her. I wanted to explore that in myself.”

After meeting the young actress and watching the various videos of her auditioning, Viswanathan instantly became Baig’s first choice for the titular role. “She just embodied the character. She brought ­something that other actors didn’t. She had a levity and charisma.” Viswanathan’s interpretation of Hala only became stronger over of the course of its 20-day shoot in Chicago, during which Baig was astonished by how she brought a deft “lightness” to such “serious and intense” material.

Baig shot 'Hala' in Chicago. Courtesy Apple TV+
Baig shot 'Hala' in Chicago. Courtesy Apple TV+

When it came to casting the rest of the ensemble, the director was so intent on making “sure it was authentic” to the story of a Muslim ­Pakistani-American family, that she made sure the other members of Hala’s family were “from that background”.

For Baig, “it was irrelevant whether they’d acted before”, as she “just wanted the right people for the part”. The result, she hopes, is a movie that will make “people feel a little less alone”, while ­Viswanathan believes that Hala will generate the “same fuzzy feeling” that classics of the coming of age genre have long provided.

Geraldine Viswanathan in 'Hala', coming soon to Apple TV+. Courtesy Apple TV+
'Hala' will be released on Apple TV+ this week. Courtesy Apple TV+

They’ve both already had ­confirmation of Hala’s ­universal appeal, because after showing the film at various festivals across the world, Baig has been “surprised and moved” by the manner in which all different kinds of people have responded to it.

“It is not always the expected group,” she explains. “I think that speaks to its universal appeal. Watching the film with subtitles upon subtitles is weird. I actually thought they wouldn’t laugh at the same things, because I just assumed there would be a delayed ­reaction. But I was very encouraged that they laughed at the same time that an American audience did.”

After Hala premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Baig was quickly inundated with interested ­distributors. But while the usual independent companies were in pursuit of the film, Baig was shocked to discover that Apple were incredibly interested in her movie for their soon-to-be launched streaming platform, Apple TV+. “I didn’t know they were buying movies,” recalls Baig. But she didn’t have any issues with taking Hala to the small screen.

In fact, she almost ­instantly knew that Apple TV+ was going to be the right home for the film. “Apple’s branding and values really match what the movie stands for,” says Baig. “It is a very cross-­cultural film and I hope it has a ­universal appeal. So it makes sense that we would be at home with Apple.”

After all, Baig was well aware that movies of Hala’s size usually only get tiny theatrical releases, and even when they do make it to other streaming sites, they’re not given the required push and just become underappreciated. Apple TV+ has made sure that won’t be the case with Hala.

“It appealed to me that it would get pushed out in a way where anyone that wanted to watch the movie could access it,” she says. “We need to understand that there are a lot of communities that don’t have access to independent theatres. And, ultimately, the end goal of these movies is making sure that people see them. Whether they see them in theatres or at home is their choice. I want them to watch this movie they way they want to watch it.”

Hala will be released on Apple TV+ on Friday

Updated: December 1, 2019 05:22 PM

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