“This state of war is like a sickness. It consumed me.”
Written and directed by Afia Nathaniel, the Pakistani thriller-drama Dukhtar (Translation from Urdu: Daughter, 2014) struggled for years to find the necessary production funds until Sørfond, The Norwegian South Film Fund, supplied the necessary resources. The lack of interest from the more obvious financiers can be blamed on the lack of “women wearing almost nothing and gyrating on the screen”, as the director commented in Tribune. Dukhtar is dedicated to Afia Nathaniel’s “mother and motherland”.
To put an end to a decades-long conflict between two tribes, a marriage is arranged between one of the elderly tribe leaders and the other’s ten year-old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref). In an effort to save her daughter from such a bleak fate, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) runs away from her husband with Zainab in tow. Hunted by both her brother-in-law and the insulted tribe leader’s men, the two women face the threat of a certain death if they get captured. When they meet a truck driver named Sohail (Mohib Mirza), Allah Rakhi struggles to convince the man to risk his own life in order to help them.
Dukhtar offers a thrilling exploration of tribal life in Gildit-Baltistan, the region administered by Pakistan where filming took place. In her feature directing debut, Afia Nathaniel treats the looming mountains and sharp clifftops as her canvas, capturing the soft glow of richly-colored fabric against every rock and outline of the bruised sky above. She also plays around with the camera, seizing dusty light and heady darkness to sever tribal life from the rest of the country’s bustling cities. By doing so, she peels back the layers of civilization and pretence to demonstrate the unique perils that lurk in areas that are off-limits to foreigners.
The mention of the tribal warfare within the storyline could be hinting at the presence of the Pashtuns, the Afghani tribe that rules what is generally referred to as Pakistan’s “wild west”. As the Irish Times states, most of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban belong to this forcibly independent tribe, which lives on its own “strict and bloody male-centred moral code”. This would certainly justify the bloodlust we catch in the furtive glances of the women’s hunters, made all the more unsettling by Adnan Shah Tipu’s faithful portrayal of the villainous Ghorzang Khan.
Restless music vibrates in the background as off-screen dialogue and agonizingly long shots of the actors’ faces compose an ambient thriller, the crux of which rests in how capricious human nature truly is. Despite the secondary cast’s stilted acting, or maybe because of it, Saleha Aref and Samiya Mumtaz glimmer like dew in sunlight, allowing their chemistry to carry the emotional thread of the film until it can be tied off at the end.
The density of their relationship is illustrated when Allah Rakhi, who was married off at the age of fifteen, mentions that a woman’s story ends after she is married, leaving her to live out the rest of her life in an illusory state. Sparing her daughter from a phantom existence at the age of ten is the ultimate gift she can offer as a mother. Her drive is impeded only when obstacles in the form of social limitations arise, demoting her to either her husband’s or father’s property. This leaves her to rely on the male perception of women, whose only means of survival is catering to the image of their supposed brittleness.
As they flee across the lands of Pakistan, we are offered ornamental views of an untraversed territory, embracing the untouched beauty of the country as one of the film’s central characters. Its boundless appeal is only emphasized by the cramped space inside the truck, which becomes the women’s refuge for most of the journey. The discomfort of the confined space is alleviated somewhat by Sohail’s comedic presence. Again, toying with the juxtaposition of the past and the present, Dukhar allows Sohail’s story as a former mujahid to point to the interlacing of culture and history with the lives of the people.
In the few simple words that tumble straight from his muddy thoughts, we are tranported to the world of jihad, the meaning of which depends on the context, but generally refers to a “struggle”, especially with an admirable aim in mind. Islamic fundamentalists have embraced jihad as a means of justifying their extreme measures of removing non-Islamic influences from every aspect of their lives. And from the conversation that takes place between Sohail and Allah Rakhi stems a greater understanding of the pain this topic invokes on the hearts of the people far removed from it.
On the other hand, we are treated to some esoteric notes of Pakistani folklore, which bridge the gap between the isolation that results from conflict, and the pursuit of a human connection. As the film slowly draws closer toward its culminating point, the story takes on more of a dramatic air, offering a taste of Pakistani city life. So much attention is paid to the subdued flavors of the land that Dukhar appears to have been filmed solely with foreign eyes in mind. It’s this touch, often lengthened to a caress, that swells with sybolism at the very end of the film, yanking the message right back to the bond between a mother and her daughter.
Overall, taking into account that the film had a budget of 41,000 dollars and a limited array of tools at its disposal, Dukhtar is quite gripping. Above all, it serves as an invitation to peer into the lives of the local people, with all the personal horrors and dilemmas that accompany their distant existence.
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