At the outset, it appears that the title Dukhtar (meaning daughter) refers to the mother-daughter relationship between the film’s protagonists, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) and Zainab (Saleha Aref). The film, indeed, follows their story as they flee their house in northern Pakistan to stop Zainab’s father from marrying her off to an elderly tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jaan). But director and writer Afia Nathaniel’s debut film uses the word to explore the mother-daughter relationship on multiple levels.
Right at the beginning of the film, Zainab and a friend have a secretive discussion about where babies come from. “When a woman looks at a man and the man looks back at her, she gets a child in her belly,” Zainab’s friend discretely informs her. It is insightful in the way these characters – very young girls — discuss their own future role as mothers and how a woman becomes a mother.
From the get go, Nathaniel’s film is sensitive, yet unafraid of saying things not openly discussed in Pakistan. As a bride-to-be, Zainab admires her mother’s wedding dress but she also inquires why there is blood on it. Allah Rakhi then says she will tell Zainab some ‘grown up’ things she wishes her own mother had told her before her marriage. Zainab coyly replies she already knows those things, whispering in her mother’s ear her recent discovery about where babies come from. This triggers something off in Allah Rakhi, and it is apparent that she will not let her daughter face the things she herself faced.
Dukhtar’s story is simple. There are no major plot twists and surprisingly – considering the subject matter – no melodrama. Even the problems presented by the tribal chief’s men following Zainab and her mother get resolved organically as the film progresses.
Dukhtar’s strength is how Nathaniel tells the story and the devices she uses for storytelling. Cinematography of some dream sequences, for instance, helps the audience look at the character’s subconscious and experience a dreamlike state of mind. Nathaniel is also helped by the fact that the film is set against the picturesque landscape of northern Pakistan.
Cinematography, however, is not always perfect. Many shots which could have been beautiful are out of focus. The mountainous landscape makes for demanding shooting conditions, which sometimes shows in the camera work. This is especially apparent in scenes within a moving truck. As Allah Rakhi and Zainab take refuge with a truck driver Sohail (Mohib Mirza) and the truck moves through mountainous terrain, sometimes the camera shakes so much that it is disorienting, even possibly off-putting for some in the audience, to watch.
These technical issues are more than compensated by the way actors assume their roles within the story. Aref and Mumtaz offer honest portrayals of a daughter and a mother respectively. During the course of the film, Allah Rakhi also meets her own mother (Samina Ahmad) who she wasn’t allowed to meet since her marriage at the age of fifteen. These small encounters add layers to her character both as a daughter and a mother. As the film closes, Nathaniel’s dedication note adds yet another dimension to it. The screen at the end reads: “For my mother”, which then changes to “For my motherland.”
This review is part of the Herald’s October 2014 issue.