Minhal Baig’s ‘Hala’ Explores Faith and Teen Sexuality Through a Muslim Immigrant Lens

A young woman’s struggle, as she attempts to branch out and make choices that conflict with her Muslim upbringing, are front and center in “Hala,” a coming-of-age drama from filmmaker Minhal Baig. Austrailian actress Geraldine Viswanathan gives an impressive performance as the title character, a high school senior whose growing curiousity and relationship with a non-Muslim male classmate, Jesse (Jack Kilmer), cause her to behave in ways that cause friction with her Pakistani immigrant parents, lawyer Zahid (Azad Khan) and homemaker Eram (Purbi Joshi).

“Hala” is a very personal story for Baig. Although the film isn’t exactly autobiographical, elements were taken from her real life. “What was the guiding principle of writing the story, for making the movie, was that it had to be emotionally true, so it always came from a place of wanting to portray a young woman navigating these multiple identities and searching for her true self. That was always the thrust of it,” the filmmaker revealed to Entertainment Voice.

As for Viswanathan, she explained how she was drawn to this “very intricate and rare character.” While some of Hala’s experiences are unique to her being a Muslim and the daughter of immigrants, much of what she goes through, such as navigating her first romance and her anxieties about the transition from high school to college, is universal.

“My first love was a skater boy,” revealed the actress with a laugh. “I think that period of time is super turbulent, but also exciting. I related to her big ambitions and restlessness… I also grew up in a white, suburban town, and I really related to feeling quite ‘othered’… The straddling of two worlds, it really resonated with me, having immigrant parents. I’m also straddling two worlds within my family, because my parents are from different backgrounds, so I very much identified with feeling like I’m in between cultures and identities and wanting to connect.”

To the delight of her parents, especially her intellectual father, Hala is a dedicated student who loves to read and write, and her identity as a budding poet is an integral part of her character, as it allows the viewer access to her innermost thoughts. Her more rebellious side comes through in her other passion, skateboarding. 

“It was a cool image that I thought about when I was writing the movie, that shot of her going through the tunnel on the skateboard, away from us,” explained Baig. “It felt like is symbolized a lot. The skateboarding is an external manifestation of this desire for freedom and independence and search for identity. And then the very internal part of it is the poetry, and those two things go together.”

While much of the publicity surrounding “Hala” is focused on the protagonist’s romance with a non-Muslim boy, the real drama in the film comes from her relationship with her parents, whom Baig does a superb job of making fully fleshed out characters with arcs of their own. In the beginning, Hala is closer to her father, who has similar intellectual interests. She has less in common with her mother, who never had the opportunity to go to college or pursue a career. Her perspective shifts when she discovers that her father is possibly living a double life, one that involves his colleague Shannon (Anna Chlumsky).

“It was important for me to show that Hala’s mother was protecting her the entire time, it was just that in the beginning of the movie, she was very marginalized,” revealed Baig. “By the end, [Hala is] starting to come around to see that her mother is standing up for her. Eram is in many ways strong in the ways that we don’t really value. She’s quietly strong, and she supports her daughter, and she is capable of standing on her own two feet.”

The female empowerment theme of “Hala” carried over onto the set, which contained a crew comprised of 70 percent women. According to Viswanathan, this helped filming go more smoothly, especially during the more sexual scenes for which she had to be at her most vulnerable.

“It did put me at ease,” she admitted. “I wasn’t even really that nervous for those scenes. I really wanted to make sure that we captured the emotion of those scenes, because that’s what those scenes were really about. I felt very supported, for which I was grateful.”

Since the release of its trailer earlier this month, “Hala” has caused a bit on a stir on social media, particularly among members of the Muslim community who are displeased about what they assume is a film depicting a young woman removing her hijab to be with a guy. The actual plot is more complex, and the love story eventually takes a backseat as other forces take over Hala’s life. In the end, she has to figure out a way to practice her faith while staying true to herself, and she makes the bold choice to wear her hair uncovered as she’s walking out of her college dorm for the first time in the final moments of the film.

“I think faith is one of the most challenging things to depict in a movie,” explained Baig. “But what I wanted to do with her is sit with her in this prayer [in the second to last scene] and make clear that this is an active choice and something that is going to continue to be a part of her life, and her decision to walk outside is more motivated by the fact that her faith is not just represented by the hijab. She is still Muslim as she’s walking out.”

“It was really beautiful,” Viswanathan said of filming that final scene. “It felt like the perfect send-off of Hala to college.”

“I don’t see the movie as being a larger statement on Islam and Muslims in America or women wearing the hijab, because that’s not the movie I made,” said Baig. “The movie is a very emotional story about a young woman’s coming of age, and it just so happens that she’s of this background. As she’s walking out, the reason that we stay with her is more [because] she’s going to be okay. She’s not done with her journey, none of us are. Going away to school is a journey of having to figure out who you are in the context of your peers, not your family, so I did want to [end] on that note.”

Hala” opens Nov. 22 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 6 on Apple TV+.