Witnessed at the 11th Dubai International Film Festival
Dubai Premiere: Cinema of the World
Written by Dania Syed
What To Expect
As the film’s title, Dukhtar emerges on screen, the letters neatly rearrange to its English translation, “Daughter,” allowing the title to – intelligently – speak volumes for the film. Complemented by the enchanting dreamscape opening sequence and its ethereal score, Dukhtar aptly sets the tone for the emotional journey it is set to pave way for.
Winning an award for Best Director at the South Asian International Film Festival, Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar is Pakistan’s Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language Film, and that only bolsters the set of expectations one has from Nathaniel’s debut feature, which took years to complete from the time it was conceived.
What’s It About
Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) was married off, at the tender age of fifteen, to a much older tribal chief, Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), who takes her away from her family in Lahore to the far northern tribal province. Decades later, Daulat Khan has the opportunity to settle an old enmity with his rival, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), by agreeing to offer him his and Allah Rakhi’s ten-year-old daughter, Zaineb (Saleha Aref), in marriage.
Shaken, reluctant, and fearing the same fate for her daughter as hers, Allah Rakhi flees with Zaineb on the eve of the marriage in a part of the world where a woman without the protective presence of her man by her side is subject to all that is unspeakable, and thus sparking a vicious search for mother and daughter among both rival tribes in the name of ‘honour.’
Knowing she can only go so far alone, Allah Rakhi hitches a ride with a sympathetic truck driver, Sohail (Mohib Mirza), to the neighbouring province of Punjab. But when Sohail learns the real reason Allah Rakhi absconded with Zaineb, he must choose between saving himself from imminent persecution or risking his life to aid mother and daughter.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
With the saturated trend of Pakistani films crafting female protagonists on screen only to cater to male testosterones, director and writer Afia Nathaniel sought to explore an emotional depth that has otherwise been missing until recently. Like some of its recent predecessors, Khuda Kay Liye and Zinda Bhaag, Dukhtar also centres around a social issue, and was inspired by a true event that Nathaniel had heard of in her previous years. It is the very fact that the practice of child marriage still largely persists, especially in the deeper, darker areas of Pakistan, that Dukhtar feels more compelling to watch than a repetitive preaching.
Braving the perilous mountains of the north, Dukhtar boasts some breathtaking cinematography, highlighting the beauty of northern Pakistan that remains masked behind its civil turmoil. Despite being in the midst of insurgent group and inter-military rivalries, Nathaniel was adamant that her story be based in that very part of Pakistan, which only added more genuinity to the base of her plot.
Establishing the characters, the shot framing enjoys beautiful juxtaposition on-screen that reveals everything about the kind of relationship the characters share. As the road-trip thriller progresses, the POV shots of vehicles driving through mointains on single-track roads is very notable, especially for their steadiness. Hand-held camera usage is also neatly incorporated, however there are a few instances of focus pulls that seemed to go off, or a mismatch in one or two odd cuts that is forgivable. Armughan Hassan, in addition to being cinematographer, also co-edited the film with Nathaniel, and the two have together established a pace that is calm enough to allow you to soak in the narrative, yet fast enough to keep you on the edge.
The first half of the film is riveting as it pivots around a mother’s fierce and selfless love for her daughter. From the moment you see the two together, their chemistry has you rooting for them all the way. The second half of Dukhtar, however, peppered with allusions to a romance between mother and truck-driver-come-good-samaritan, began to reflect glimpses of Nathaniel’s attempts to veer towards commercialism in order to appeal to the masses, which only weakened what could otherwise have been a very captivating tale, and was completely redundant.
To Perform Or Not To Perform
For followers of Pakistani entertainment, Dukhtar bolsters a stellar cast, mainly from its faster-growing television industry. Veteran actress Samiya Mumtaz, most memorable for her widely praised performance in the television drama Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan, is at the helm of the narrative and she has taken the reins very convincingly as a woman of the conservative Pashtun areas, who has a duty to both her roots and her daughter.
Saleha Aref, making her acting debut, has won hearts with her heartwarming portrayal of Zaineb and her innocence, as she shares every girl’s fantasy of marrying her ‘prince’ and having a big beautiful home of her own.
Coming to the protagonists’ rescue is yet another television veteran Mohib Mirza with his Sohail, who is as unconvincing as Michael Caine doing a Spaghetti Western, his fake accent and far too shiny hair making him seem less like a truck driver and more a tactical decision to draw in crowds thanks to his fanbase.
Although Abdullah Jan’s menacing Tor Gul is the rival tribal leader, his murderous henchman Ghorzang Khan, performed by Adnan Shah, is more terrifying as he ventures out on a string of cold-blooded killings, promising not to spare those who dishonour his tribe. Allah Rakhi’s husband, Daulat Khan, is played by fellow veteran Asif Khan who adds assertiveness to a man without any emotional affinity for his wife. Portraying Daulat’s brother Shahbaz Khan is Ajab Gul, who cogently delivers a performance that makes him spiteful, especially with his lustful gazes towards Allah Rakhi.
The verdict: Yes!
Given that this is Nathaniel’s debut, in addition to everything that is good about it, one can get past the lack of monotony in Dukhtar that would otherwise have made it an even better watch. Thankfully, the film makes no reference to religion or fundamentalism – topics that have been covered far too many times in all their macabre glory – and that makes Dukhtar a more personal experience than societal preaching, and a very satisfying one at that. Recommended, especially for those who appreciate the independence of cinema!
Star Rating: 3.5 / 5
The film marked its official Dubai release in the Dubai International Film Festival on the 11th of this month. Having been an instant favourite of film festivals around the world, the movie will mark its tentative public UK release on April 2015.