Dukhtar is the debut feature length film for writer-director Afia Nathaniel, an independent Pakistani filmmaker. Unfolding in the heart of Pakistani tribal lands, the film revolves around the harrowing and brave escape of a mother and her child as they flee the clutches of local warlords, in the face of the impending marriage of her 10-year-old daughter to a local chieftain. The mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), was once a child bride herself. Married off to Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), a much older chieftain, and resigned to spending her life in a loveless marriage in a remote Pakistani village, her only joy and comfort is her precocious daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref).
The film opens in the midst of peace negotiations between Daulat Khan and a rival chieftain. When it is decided between the men that truce will be called if Daulat Khan’s daughter were offered as a bride to the other chieftain, Allah Rakhi is devastated. Unwilling to allow her beloved young daughter to suffer the same fate, Allah Rakhi realizes that the only way out in a society where women are confined to strict and marginalized domestic roles is to make a run for it. She finds help in the reluctant truck driver Sohail (Mohib Mirza), who crosses their path accidentally but who ends up being a crucial ally. Traversing breathtakingly beautiful but desolate mountain landscapes, they slowly make their way to Lahore to reunite with her family. Along the way, Allah Rakhi discovers all the elements one would expect on this kind of journey — peace of mind, sense of self, courage and ultimately love.
Part action and part drama, the film at times felt a bit too neatly packaged, with clear-cut good guys and villain characters, complete with a budding romance between the pair of handsome leads and climactic action sequences. But given the context — an unconventional Pakistani tale of a heroine’s defiance of all she’s known in search of a better life and a second chance — it’s perhaps the only way to tell this story. Given the film’s already boundary-pushing central ideas and polemic tone, such a well-worn framework could be essential in garnering and retaining regional popular appeal.
When I met Ms Nathaniel on a recent gray Swedish morning, where her film made its European premiere at the 25th Stockholm International Film Festival, she spoke passionately about the film and her reasons behind making it. The film took 10 years to make, partly because of funding scarcity and partly because of the issue at hand, which is a sensitive topic — that of child marriage in the country. But she was adamant in pursuing the project: she believes in the importance of shedding light on the subject matter, and hopes to use film as a medium to change cultural perceptions and attitudes. Asked if she saw any parallels between her film and the current debate surrounding Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani child advocate for education for girls and 2014 Nobel Peace Laureate, she said that there are definitely spillover effects. There has been a certain amount of public criticism decrying the film as an attack on local customs and traditions, not unlike in Malala’s own situation.
But there has also been an outpouring of interest and support from the local community and within the entertainment industry, adding that most of the actors in the film were very interested in promoting and supporting the project and its social message. She mentioned that the involvement of well-known figures like Asif Khan, the legendary Pakistani actor who played the role of Chieftain Daulat Khan, helps tip the power scale towards social acceptance of the rights of girls and women in Pakistani society. As a South Asian woman filmmaker who has struggled in the film business, she felt that it was almost an obligation that her first film would portray women seizing their lives in their own hands, and she is very pleased that the film has contributed in some ways to the polarizing social discussions in Pakistan. The film has generated considerable interest overseas as well and is in fact Pakistan’s official entry in the Best Foreign Film category for the 2015 Academy Awards.
Filmed on location in the mountains of Pakistan, with hair-raising action scenes on the famous Karakoram Highway, notorious for its deep ravines and one of the most dangerous highways in the world (I was told that the actors did all their own stunt driving!) the film is at once hard and edgy, and yet soft and tender when it mellows into the dialogue scenes between Allah Rakhi, Sohail and Zainab. These are often framed poetically, with a screenplay focused on folkloric storytelling and heart-to-heart confessions around campfires. The film benefits from fine performances, from the menacing tribal men to plucky, preteen Zainab; as well as the natural backdrop of the underrated beauty of the region. However, what makes Dukhtar a must-see film is that it’s an idiosyncratic, untold story of daughters, of mothers, and of motherland.