From a country that is being swept by floods, and pushed towards anarchy, comes an indie film called Dukhtar, showcased at the International Toronto Film Festival. Making her debut with this creative offering, Afia Nathaniel has written, directed and produced Dukhtar. Like some of its recent predecessors, Khuda Kay Liya, Bol and Zinda Bhaag, it deals with a social issue. The underlying theme of this film is swara, a custom practiced in Pakistan’s northern areas, where a girl child is given away in marriage to settle a blood feud between families or tribes.
In order to protect her ten-year old daughter from her impending fate of swara, Allah Rakhi, played with some intensity by Samiya Mumtaz, escapes with her daughter, Zainab. Saleha Aref’s performance as an unsuspecting and disarmingly innocent child is exceptional. The primeval and protective instinct of the mother, and the close relationship between the two, is touching and sensitively handled. Zainab is portrayed as a confident, outgoing child, with a sharp mind and a desire to learn, who tries to teach her mother English alphabets; in other words, she has a great potential to grow and be a useful and an educated member of the society. But it is the beautiful Allah Rakhi, who smolders in an unfulfilled marriage and a deadening culture that she has accepted with resignation. However, she does the unthinkable, by escaping with Zainab, when swara becomes imminent for her daughter.
As they try to escape the stranglehold of a suffocating and repressive patriarchal set up, they appear small and vulnerable against a harsh but beautiful landscape. The wonderful cinematography captures the stunning but changing landscape. Set in the tribal areas, the future of the mother and daughter seems doomed as gun-toting tribals pursue them. Adnan Shah, who leads the search, is brilliant as the villain and evil incarnate, as he enforces his writ with ruthless violence.
When the wonderful soundtrack by Sahir Ali Bagga is played against the captivating landscape, the mixture is heady, especially when Rahat Fateh Ali Khan belts out Ya Rahem, Maula, Maula. However, for some strange reason all of the musical numbers are cut short half way. It’s a fast paced movie, with never a dull moment; social issues are wonderfully interwoven with action, suspense and a thrilling chase.
Afia Nathanial, who was educated in Lahore and studied filmmaking at Columbia University, has only whet our appetite for more such well-produced movies.
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