“Ma, what is this,” the little one asks.
“This is from my wedding night.”
“What is this spot?”
“Mine. Your grandmother’s. Her grandmother’s.”
“Did you hurt yourself badly?”
Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) has been hurt in more ways than her innocent daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref) could possibly imagine. Taken from her family at a young age, she was forced into a loveless marriage with a tribal chieftain high up in the mountains of Pakistan. But now a rival chieftain has demanded Zainab’s hand in exchange for ending a bloody feud between their communities. The fact that he is elderly and Zainab is ten hardly seems to matter. But Allah Rakhi will not see her daughter repeat her life. So on her wedding day she kidnaps her. So begins Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar, a vital, urgent Pakistani film vibrating with life and truth.
Ostensibly a thriller, Dukhtar follows Allah Rakhi and Zainab as they race through the Pakistani wilderness, trying desperately to stay one step ahead of their pursuers. But the relationship between mother and daughter serves as the heart of the film. An early scene shows Zainab teaching Allah Rakhi English. It’s a brief, silly 2-3 minute affair that serves absolutely no purpose to the plot since neither character ever have to use English again; but it’s essential in reminding the audience that Zainab isn’t a MacGuffin and that Allah Rakhi isn’t an action hero—they’re not stock characters, they’re people who love and need each other. Rarely have I seen the mother-daughter bond depicted in the cinema with such candor and emotion.
Allah Rakhi has no illusions about what will happen to them if they are caught: she will be murdered in retaliation, and Zainab will be married. My one major criticism involves its generic plotting. Those familiar with the genre will be able to predict every single major story beat from their rescue at the hands of a dashing yet emotionally conflicted drifter, in this case an ex-Mujahideen named Sohail (Mohib Mirza), to their third act capture when Allah Rakhi makes the foolish decision to visit her long-lost mother in Lahore despite knowing that’s one of the first places their enemies will look for them. But it hardly matters—the narrative is merely a framing device for Nathaniel’s explorations into the heart and soul of her native Pakistan and the unbreakable link between mother and daughter. To see Dukhtar is to see Pakistan with new eyes: vivacious in color, heart-aching in scope, stunning in size. Nathaniel and cinematographers Armughan Hassan and Najaf Bilgrami never miss an opportunity for beautiful shots of Pakistani vistas and countrysides. But far from being superfluous, they provide the film with a mythic quality and fantastical tone. Dukhtar reminds us what it means to be human, what it means to love, and what it means to sacrifice for it.
Learn more about Dukhtar at http://www.dukhtarthefilm.com.
It opens nationally on October 9, 2015.