In a village scaling the rocky peaks of northern Pakistan, 10-year-old Zainab (Saleha Arif) dreams of finding her prince and a home of her own. When she is promised by her father to the ruthless head of a rival tribe, her mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) is determined to protect her daughter from the fate of unrealized dreams and life under an iron-fisted husband two generations her senior. The day before the wedding, she and Zainab run away from home, risking their lives in an attempt to save themselves.
They make their getaway up and down stone stairwells, through pencil-thin alleys, and eventually in the passenger seat of an ornately adorned truck steered by Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a cranky yet big-hearted driver who takes them in grudgingly at first, but soon becomes equally invested in their safety. Bound by their shared loneliness and waning hope for a life beyond their forlorn existence, the three navigate the winding road that could be their route to freedom or their road to ruin, with the tribal leader’s brutal men hot on their trail.
Inspired by a true story (in fact, many of them), writer/director Afia Nathaniel’s debut feature is the epitome of a labor of love. Pursued against all odds, the project included shooting in war-ridden locales, threats of imposed fatwas by local clergies, and a 10-year battle to find funding — an independent social issue film about women, made by a woman, was hardly given even a first glance by prospects in Pakistan. Nathaniel’s financial support ultimately came from a potpourri of companies in New York and The Netherlands. The arduous physical and emotional journey does have a happy ending; today, Dukhtar (Daughter) is Pakistan’s submission to the 2015 Academy Awards’ Foreign Language Film category (only the country’s second entry in the last 50 years), and has premiered to unanimous praise everywhere from Toronto to London.
And for good reason. Without the need for excessive violence or effects that characterize a “conventional” thriller, (in fact, most of the film is set against a melodious score of of various Pakistani ghazals), Nathaniel’s story is still electric with edge-of-your-seat suspense. Here, the tension arises from the quiet resilience of the two atypical heroines, our skepticism in the people around them as we comprehend the danger they would face if caught, and the gut-wrenching realization that while their tale is fictional, it is a reflection of the many girls in the region for whom child marriage is an impending or lived reality.
True to its title, the film’s heart beats in the bond between mother and daughter. Early in the story, the two exchange light banter as Zainab gives Allah Rakhi an English lesson, the latter proving a distracted student against her child’s attempts to exercise discipline. They share playful giggles over Zainab’s starry-eyed daydreams, and painful silences in a discussion, wrought with naïve misunderstandings, on how babies are conceived. Allah Rakhi’s maternal impulses emerge in her almost self-sacrificing determination to protect Zainab from an unjust custom. With each passing scene, the rich layers of their relationship become increasingly clear: they are each other’s protectors, teachers, allies, and friends.
Mumtaz roots the story with her subtle, but stunning, portrayal of Allah Rakhi: unobtrusive, but also unwavering in her resolve. In an impeccable bit of casting, Arif as Zainab wins us over immediately with her endearing blend of innocence, inquisitiveness, and spunk — the sort of girl we can easily imagine Allah Rakhi was before being stripped of that childhood exuberance when she was herself married at 15 to a man more than twice her age.
Though tackling the prickly subject of child marriage, Nathaniel avoids an overdressed narrative weighed down by extreme politicization or preachy statements. Instead, she highlights the severity of the issue by way of a much more human story, one that, amidst the intense and unnerving twists, makes room for Sohail’s comedic energy and for the budding of new relationships. Moments in the second half, where hints of affection surface between Sohail and Allah Rakhi, betray a catering to mass audience appeal. But Nathaniel’s firm grasp on the plot thankfully prevents it from veering too far into commerciality; the affinity simply punctuates the rebuilding of lost trust between three individuals low on faith. Their collective journey is quietly mirrored by the passing scenery as they move from their empty, almost imprisoned existence in the jagged gray highlands of their origin, along icy blue lakes and trees sprouting with green life en route, and closer toward the bustling vibrancy of Lahore where hope (however fragile) may await.
Drawing its power from the rawness of Nathaniel’s lens, both on her characters and their surroundings, Dukhtar is a remarkable accomplishment in evoking emotion from restraint. Beautifully captured and earnestly told, this testament to the inextinguishable spirit of storytelling was entirely worth the decade-long wait.
Anisha Jhaveri is a freelance writer and film blogger, and a recent export to Singapore from New York City. Find her on Twitter @jhavanis.
Dukhtar will screen at the the Castro Theatre tonight as part of 3rd I’s 12th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival. Visit http://www.thirdi.org/ for details. Find information about upcoming screenings for the film on Facebook.