#29: DUKHTAR (2014)/Urdu & Pashto, with English subtitles
Director: Afia Serena Nathaniel
Street Date: August 9, 2016/KINO LORBER
Afia Serena Nathaniel’s Dukhtar premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014 and quickly became a fest favorite, as well Pakistan’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Oscars. It wasn’t chosen as one of the final nominees in that category, though it might well have been. It’s an assured, atmospheric, suspenseful drama with an unshakable mother/daughter bond at its center.
Kino Lorber has just released a blu-ray of Dukhtar, showcasing Nathaniel’s skill. The visuals are radiant: dust in shafts of light, the brilliant oranges and reds of a young girl’s clothes, the stark but beautiful Pakistani landscape – and the score is lush. The entire project has a dreamlike quality, although it’s set in the real political and gender dynamics of Pakistan.
Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) was 15 when her parents married her to an older man, Daulat Khan (Asif Khan). Now Allah Rakhi’s husband has agreed to marry their 10 year old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref) to a powerful but elderly warlord, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan). It’s an alliance intended to bring peace, but not one that Allah Rakhi can accept for her beloved daughter. And so this quiet, obedient wife takes Zainab and runs.
Dukhtar portrays a Pakistan marred by rival warlords, blood feuds, child marriage, honor killing – but then there’s Allah Rakhi, with her young but tired eyes, determined to protect her vibrant, joyful little girl. And there’s the truck driver that helps them. Sohail (Mohib Mirza) is reluctant at first, especially when he finds out who they’re running from. But it doesn’t take long to find out how kind and brave this former Mujahadin really is.
Why is this still happening in 2016? Nathaniel doesn’t offer an explanation for what’s wrong; she simple treats her female characters with a dignity that is it’s own argument for change.
There’s something paradoxical in all of this, at least for me, a stranger to Pakistan. It’s easy to focus on the horror of child marriage or religious extremism, winding up with contempt or pity for the country and its people. But Afia Serena Nathaniel is Pakistani herself and can look at the dark side of her homeland without obscuring her obvious love for it. Holding those things in tension is no stranger than seeing Sohail’s truck, a riot of color, against the barren desert landscape. How is it that, not only in Pakistan, but in so many countries around the world – countries with rich histories, kind and loving people, and deep religious traditions – girls and women are deprived of the simple right to choose their own paths in life, to choose their own mates? Why is this still happening in 2016? Nathaniel doesn’t offer an explanation for what’s wrong; she simple treats her female characters with a dignity that is it’s own argument for change.
Much credit for Dukhtar’s power must go to Mumtaz who gives a great, restrained performance. In a patriarchal culture women often survive by being silent and self-contained.. But in such a setting both memories and dreams can serve as a kind of defiance, transcending the cramped cage of Allah Rakhi’s existence. She tells Sohail that her story ended when she married, but she’s unwilling to see Zainab’s story cut short in the same way. Allah Rakhi can still dream other dreams for her daughter and is willing to risk both of their lives to make them possible.
“Dukhtar” is the Urdu word for “daughter”. Nathaniel dedicated Dukhtar to both her mother and her motherland, adding extra dimensions of meaning to the film’s title. It is certainly about the powerful love between a mother and daughter, but it’s also a daughter of Pakistan’s sorrowful and loving look at the nation that nurtured her. Nathaniel now lives in the United States but is well respected in Pakistan and considered a leader of the Pakistani film revival. What she does in Dukhtar is filmmaking it’s best: not just artistically skillful, but using those skills to call us to be better than we are.
Kino Lorber’s blu-ray of “Dukhtar” includes the U.S. Trailer for the film and a director’s commentary from Nathaniel. Her insights on the film and background on the cast (and on dealing with the Pakistani censor board) are fascinating.
The still pictures included in this review are intended only as a representation of the film itself, and do not necessarily reflect the video transfer quality of this blu-ray release.