October Issue 2014
Movie Review: Dukhtar
By this point, the ‘new wave’ of Pakistani cinema has been written about to death. The ‘new’ is ‘now,’ so perhaps it’s time to move beyond the discussion on how great it is that quality films are finally being made at home or congratulating one another on the fact that we are making any films at all, and start rating local films (granted, made under more difficult circumstances and with limited resources) as we would any other international film. Ask the two basic questions: Does the storyline keep you engaged? And does it resonate on an emotional level? In the case of Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar, I would say ‘yes’ on both counts.
Released on September 18, Dukhtar is Pakistan’s official entry for the category of Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. But it’s getting mixed reviews from the local press, with some showering it with praise, and others with (sometimes unfair) dismissal. It is a film that requires a little sensitivity on the part of the audience — lacking that quality says something about the viewer, but nothing about the film itself.
Similar to Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani, Dukhtar explores the primal bond: of mother and child. Shot in the northern areas, against brilliant towering mountains, the cinematography is breathtaking and, without a doubt, the highlight of the film. Nathaniel credits ‘magical-realism’ as a cinematic influence, which shows in the opening scene (a dream sequence), in which Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) floats down a river in a boat. She wakes up to the sound of a window beating against the wind, and to a less enchanting reality. In the next scene, she cooks for and serves her much older husband (Asif Khan); their backs towards one another, no words spoken. Sullen-faced and serious, Allah Rakhi is neither happy nor miserable; she has just resigned to fate. She does, however, find joy in raising her daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref), and we get to see this in a wonderful scene in which Zainab tries to teach her mother the English words she learnt at school. The natural ease of interaction between the two actors is just fantastic to watch.
Her husband, Daulat Khan, pays a visit to the chief of a rival tribe, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jaan), to broker a peace deal. He tries to reason with him, saying that if nothing is done, the senseless cycle of revenge between the two warring clans will continue without end. But Tor Gul reminds him that the scales are uneven: seven of Daulat Khan’s men have been killed, whereas 10 of Tor Gul’s are dead. To guarantee peace, they need to establish family ties. And so, it is agreed that prepubescent Zainab’s hand is to be given in marriage to elderly Tor Gul. Daulat Khan is upset by this deal, but (though some viewers will be completely unsympathetic) he is bound by tradition, and sees it as a sacrifice he has to make to bring about peace. In some ways, he has also resigned to fate.
However, for Allah Rakhi, accepting her fate as has her husband, doesn’t mean her daughter has to as well. And so she does the impossible: She escapes with Zainab. On her trail are Tor Gul’s henchmen, led by Ghorzang Khan (Adnan Shah Tipu), and her brother-in-law (Ajab Gul). They are helped by a Punjabi truck driver, Sohail (Mohib Mirza), who initially sees the mother and daughter as a nuisance, but later develops a soft corner for them.
Dukhtar is a wonderful film, but not without some flaws: The first half is thrilling to watch, but the plot loses momentum in the second half, and begins to drag a bit. Secondly, while the acting from entire the cast is great, there is a jarring lack of chemistry between Samiya Mumtaz and Mohib Mirza. In particular, the script and its delivery during the chase scenes could have been further polished to appear more natural and less forced.
And, though not a ‘fault’ per se, there is one potentially troubling aspect of the film: the lack of ‘good’ Pashtun characters, in Pashtunland (save a friend of Sohail’s, who we only encounter briefly before he meets his tragic end). Allah Rakhi’s own background is not clear: Her father is said to be related to her husband, but she grew up in Lahore and speaks with an urban accent, as does her mother (Samina Ahmed). Even her name is Punjabi-sounding. In a film about mainly Pashtuns, dealing with issues from those areas, it would only have been fair to feature at least one, positive Pashtun male character.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue under the headline, “Not Without My Daughter.”
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.