Dukhtar

When you hear about child marriages taking place in rural areas of Pakistan, you sometimes wonder what kind of mother would allow her underage child to be married to an adult man, whether ten or twenty or fifty years older than the child. All too often it’s a woman who was also married to an adult man when she was just a girl, and is powerless to stand up to a patriarchy that demands a similar child sacrifice to perpetuate itself. But in “Dukhtar,” Pakistan director Afia Nathaniel dares to imagine what happens when a woman defies the order of her husband to have her ten-year-old daughter married to an elderly tribal leader in order to put an end to a blood feud.

Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) lives with her ten year old daughter Zainab (Saleha Arif) and husband Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), perched high above the world in the mountains of Pakistan. Allah Rakhi’s most meaningful relationship is with her daughter, who teaches her English words that she learns in school. Her interactions with her husband are limited to serving him food and obeying his instructions, but she lives mostly in peace with him and her surroundings. Nathaniel avoids romanticizing the scenery (though Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is showcased in all its desolate beauty; the cinematography is one of the film’s strongest features) or portraying Allah Rakhi’s life as extraordinarily miserable; it’s a realistic picture of what life is like in hamlets all over the mountainous regions of Pakistan, bleak and strenuous, but not without its small joys.

The action starts quickly when Daulat Khan is forced to visit a tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), to negotiate a resolution to an old enmity that has claimed lives on both sides. Tor Gul forces Daulat Khan to give Zainab in marriage to him, saying that creating a bond between the two warring families is the only way to satisfy the demands of honor. Daulat Khan barely protests; he leaves Tor Gul’s territory with a promise that the Nikah between Tor Gul and the underage Zainab will be performed the following Friday. The speed with which the rishta is suggested and accepted illustrates that not only are girls and women considered disposable property by men, but that nobody’s really interested in changing the status quo.

When Allah Rakhi hears the news, at first she too feels she has little choice but to agree to Zainab’s wedding to the influential and dangerous Tor Gul. But a chance exchange with her daughter wakes her up from her stupor, and she quickly thinks of a plan to escape. Tor Gul’s men, and Daulat Khan’s own nephew Shehbaz Khan (Ajaz Gul) pursue them, and Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s fate seems inescapable in the face of these armed men with no mercy in their hearts chasing two women on foot in their jeeps.

But then a knight in shining armour appears: Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a Punjabi whose galloping steed is a huge Bedford truck kitted out in full truck art regalia: colorful fans and mirror work all over the body, a tiger painted on the back, and a big false hood fitted onto the top. He calls this vehicle Rani and for his livelihood he carries cargo up and down the route from Lahore into the mountains and back down again. Allah Rakhi begs him to help her and her daughter in a scene that shows what a fine actor Samiya Mumtaz is; her face can go from weary to passionate just by the way she widens or narrows her eyes. Though she’s in almost every scene, you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen. She manages to portray both strength and vulnerability at the same time, which makes her a truly complex character.

The rest of the movie follows the threesome as they attempt to make their way down to Lahore, much like the story of “The Bride” by Bapsi Sidhwa, which seems like a major influence on the screenplay. It’s standard escape-movie stuff, but manages to stay absorbing all the way until they stop at the village of Sohail’s friend, Zarak Khan (Omair Gul), who welcomes them to his abode and promises them sanctuary. We get to see the positive side of Pakhtunwali, the tribal code of honor, which is all too often  portrayed as a one-dimensional cycle of murder and revenge, and harsh treatment of women. Instead, we’re reminded that Pakhtuns consider loyalty and protection to guests two of the most important characteristics of their integrity as Pakhtuns, and kindness to women and girls are part of that too.

This pause in the action is also where the movie takes a meandering turn from the central question of whether Allah Rakhi and Zainab will escape Tor Gul’s revenge. Instead, it turns to deepening the relationship between Allah Rakhi and Sohail, picturing them as lovers who can’t be together because of circumstances. Nathaniel conveys this by having Sohail tell Allah Rakhi the story of how the Kabul and Indus River came to be intertwined at the spot near Attock where they’re sheltering with Zarak Khan.

But the addition of this Sufi-like parable to the story, like the emerging love between the two, feels a little forced. Nathaniel continues with heavy-handed Sufi symbolism when the trio make it to Lahore and walk around the shrine of Data Darbar, watching the musicians and drummers and malangs commune with God, and the inclusion of a few qawwali numbers into the soundtrack, particularly Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Ya Rahem, Maula Maula.” Overall, the diversion into love story territory weakens what is otherwise a credible and enjoyable film.

Still, Dukhtar is a refreshing look at an age-old story: the very human and universal need to escape oppression, as played out within the specific iteration of Pakhtun culture. Nathaniel’s camera opens up parts of Pakistan that remain closed off to most of the world (she’s to be commended for having shot footage in some of the most unforgiving and dangerous territory in South Asia). Her gaze on this land makes you fall in love with both the kitsch and the majesty found side by side in Khyber Paktunkhwa. And the ending scene brings the movie back to its original premise: that the most intense love in Dukhtar is the one between a mother and her daughter. They are the lover and the beloved who cannot bear separation from one another even for a second. If the lover shows the requisite amount of courage in protecting the beloved, perhaps they never will.

Here is the official trailer for Dukhtar, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Toronto International Film Festival 

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