Dukhtar or ‘daughter’ has a title that is self-explanatory to a large extent. The movie, directed superbly by Afia Nathaniel, chronicles the perilous journey of a mother and her 10-year old daughter, as they flee from an impending child marriage, desperately searching for freedom.
What the title does not relay, though, are the subtle nuances that flow through the storyline, the direction that seamlessly traverses the breathtaking landscape of Northern Pakistan all the way down to urban Lahore and the acting that holds it all together.
All this, coupled with a heartrending storyline, makes Dukhtar well worth the watch.
The story begins in a village in the far reaches of conservative Northern Pakistan where in a bid to make peace, 10-year old Zainab’s hand in marriage is promised by her father to the aging leader of another tribe.
On the eve of the marriage, Zainab (Saleha Aref) and her mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), run away from home, stumbling their way through rocky terrains before they unexpectedly get help from a cantankerous truck-driver enacted by Mohib Mirza.
Their journey is fraught with dangers as they try to evade bloodthirsty tribal goons, who are desperate to search them out in order to defend their honor.
|Samiya Mumtaz and Saleha Aref in a scene from "Dukhtar". – Publicity Photo|
This is a story we’ve all heard before. In remote villages and even deep within the recesses of modern cities, the shocking practice of marrying extremely young girls to much older men persists. It is this sad truth that makes Dukhtar all the more poignant.
The plot is bolstered by a stellar cast. Samiya Mumtaz and Saleha Arif, enacting the mother and daughter respectively, are definitely the stars. Their chemistry together is utterly believable and has you rooting for them till the end. Adnan Shah as the murderous henchman is impressively terrifying.
|Adnan Shah in a scene from "Dukhtar". – Publicity Photo|
The one weak link, though, is Mohib Mirza. His Punjabi accent is stilted and he hardly looks the grungy truck-driver with his straightened, shiny hair.
Perhaps the movie would have boded better had some other actor been chosen rather than Mohib, who may draw in audiences due to his commercial appeal but will not be able to hold their attention.
|Mohib Mirza in a scene from "Dukhtar". – Publicity Photo|
It is Dukhtar’s slight veer towards commercialism, then, that makes it weak in places.
The first-half is gripping with the plot pivoting around a mother’s fierce love for her daughter, woven within a tale of strength, adventure and the ruthlessness of a patriarchal society.
In the second half, though, the story returns time and again to awkward flirtation between the truck-driver and the mother, including hard-to-swallow love-struck glances.
The allusions to romance may have been added to lighten the storyline and make it more appealing to the masses. But in doing so, Afia has weakened the main plot, diluting it with a love story that takes away from the strong narrative about a mother and daughter trapped in a patriarchal nightmare.
|Samiya Mumtaz in a scene from "Dukhtar". – Publicity Photo|
Overall, though, writer, director and co-producer Afia Nathaniel keeps Dukhtar fast-paced, interspersing light-hearted moments, twists and turns and dialogues. Hardly a scene drags and this is a movie that could have easily succumbed to monotony.
There are no depressing, long-winded scenes and monologues and while it may be a story that we have all heard and read before, it still stays interesting. Fraught with tensions and emotions, it draws you in - especially in the first half - and keeps you in suspense.
The story is aided by breathtakingly beautiful scenery. The cinematography spans streams, sparse plateaus, lush green fields and the magnificent mountain ranges of the North. Some of the imagery is hazy but perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to make the scenes more surreal. Apparently, the movie was shot within a very short span of time, but it hardly looks like a rush job. It’s a movie created with a rare blend of passion, sincerity and intelligence and it shows.
|Samiya Mumtaz, Mohib Mirza and Saleha Aref in a scene from "Dukhtar". – Publicity Photo|
The soundtrack by Sahir Ali Bagga is brilliant. ‘Ya Rahem, Maula Maula’ by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Shafqat Amanat Ali’s ‘Jeenay Chalay’ are particularly memorable and if there has to be one crib against Dukhtar, it would be that the songs should have lasted longer rather than for a few seconds during scenes.
But these are minor criticisms – for Dukhtar is an enjoyable movie that makes you think and still, doesn’t drone on endlessly.
The film was recently showcased at the Toronto International Film Festival but this isn’t just a ‘festival’ movie, filmed documentary-style. Afia has simultaneously tried to pander to both art and commercial cinema, something that may weaken the plot but, inevitably, will manage to drive the public to buy tickets for a movie that may have otherwise been considered ‘too heavy’.
Refreshingly, Dukhtar refrains from making references to religion, terrorism and extremism – topics that may be real but have now been filmed in all their macabre glory far too many times, both within Pakistan and beyond. Instead, it pinpoints an issue that exists within Pakistan without naming any one particular tribe, mirroring the good and the bad and culminating with a finale that has you cheering.
As a harbinger to the much-touted ‘Revival of Pakistani Cinema’, Dukhtar highlights the strengths of the industry. A strong plot, coupled with fabulous music, some very good actors and watertight direction – Dukhtar has no allusions towards Bollywood or Hollywood and it doesn’t need to.
With its highs and few lows, its stronger elements and faults, it’s a completely Pakistani story, told from a completely Pakistani perspective; a story well-told.