In one of the most stark and beautiful regions of the world with its incandescent light enhancing the brilliant sky blues and cloud whites against sharply edged mountains, a blood feud has raged between families whose souls have remained untouched by the loveliness of their homeland. For the tribal leaders the wounds run deep and the rancor has wasted the lives of good men on each side as killing must avenge killing.
Only an offering of peace can stem the flow of blood and unite the two tribes so they are like one family. Tribal leader Tor Gul (Abdullah Jaan), has proposed the sacrificial offering and as he negotiates with Daulat Khan (Asif Kahn), to make the arrangement, the rival chieftan’s face is stony. Khan knows if he rejects Tor Gul’s request, he could be killed next. So he agrees to give his 10-year-old daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref), in marriage to the 60 something Tor Gul. As the men have decreed, so the women will follow in the opening scenes of Dukhtar, (daughter), written and directed by Afia Nathaniel which screened in its New York Premiere at the 2015 Athena Film Festival. Such is the plight of women in the paternalistic, demeaning, and enslaving tribal culture which Nathaniel excoriates roundly in her first feature film debut.
In this landscape of natural wonder far from the seedy dinginess of urban life, values are as crystal clear as the streams that flow unpolluted in the mountains. Women are chattel whose lives are not their own. To rebel against ancient custom and defy the ruling of a tribe or a husband, a woman will be physically punished. If the defiance is egregious, she will die. Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), Zainab’s young mother, understands the laws. She was married off to the decades older Daulat Khan when she was a child. She was forced to obey his mother’s family and do his bidding. Forbidding Allah Rakhi to see her own mother and family in Lahore, Pakistan, for the rest of her life, Kahn forced her to renounce her identity and person-hood becoming his property in mind, soul, and body.
Suffering the pain and torment of a loveless marriage Allah Rakhi knows the emotional devastation of being wedded against her wishes to a man who could be her grandfather. When she is made aware of the imminent fate of Zainab, who is literate and who has ambition, she makes a revolutionary decision which will rock their community and astound her husband. She will run away with Zainab. It is her death sentence. But rather than have her daughter experience the life that she’s suffered, Allah Rakhi will break the traditions of bondage. Her life is worth nothing anyway. Her daughter’s life is everything. If she dies trying to bring her daughter into freedom, and fails, it will be a symbolic victory. And who knows? She just might succeed.
Afia Nathaniel has cleverly set the bar high for the conflicts and adventure in Dukhtar. She unabashedly and unflinchingly presents the situation of child marriages in the local villages in Pakistan. She denotes the repressive patriarchal society and the submissive role of women as chattel who do not possess themselves or determine their own destiny. And against this backdrop, she reveals the heroism of one woman who silently screams against the entrenched societal prison, “Not for my daughter.”Allah Rakhi’s internal cry is never argued or voiced; the moment she discovers Zainab’s betrothal, she gathers a few items and her daughter, and they flee.
In defiance Allah Rakhi has pitted herself against the fortress of tradition symbolized by her husband and Tor Gul. Both are determined to kill Allah Rakhi and recapture the peace offering Zainab. They send their security forces to hunt them down. One particular villain who says he would have married Allah Rakhi if Kahn hadn’t is relentless, and the filmmaker leaves it a mystery as to what he will do if he captures Allah Rakhi. As Rakhi and Zainab slip away then race through the village, the henchmen shoot at them. Rakhi secrets herself and Zainab in various areas moving to the outskirts of the town long enough to thwart their pursuers until she and Zainab move onto the back roads and head for the mountains. Hers is the flight of fear, the moral imperative of freedom. Nathaniel has precisely configured the intense scenes of escape and hiding to convey a maximum of edge-of the seat empathy for the mother and daughter. And with her direction and coaching, superb actors Samiya Mumtaz and Saleha Aref give compelling, poignant performances. Likewise, the excellent ensemble actors playing the henchmen, Gul and Kahn, are believable and fearsome. Rakhi and Zainab’s flight is panic stricken, and we feel their every emotion as mother and daughter travel to the open road on their way to Lahore where Rakhi’s mother lives.
It is on the road when Nathaniel’s plot gains dimension and garners surprising and interesting turns in the next segments. Allah Rakhi and Zainab come into contact with Sohail (Mohib Mirza), an apparently itinerant truck driver who sees that they are running away and is wary of the trouble that they carry with them. Against his better judgment and Afia Nathaniel intimates, because Allah Rakhi reminds him of a love he has lost, he gives the mother and daughter refuge in his truck. After their pleading and an encounter with the villains during which Sohail lies, he has become embroiled in their plight. To save himself as much as them initially, he agrees to take them to Lahore.
However, the relentless tribesmen of Gul and Khan eventually discover the mother and daughter’s possible whereabouts with Sohail whose character has belied himself and inadvertently given them away. When the forces understand what has happened, the hot chase picks up speed and, at every turn, Sohail with the women in tow manages to elude the killers. With perceptive, intelligent writing, Nathaniel has allowed the natural circumstances to unfold from her keen character portrayals. Sohail becomes Rakhi and Zainab’s protector despite himself and with increasing tension building during these scenes, he skillfully wards off the villains. Sacrificing himself to take on their suffering, he is elevated to a heroic stature in Rakhi’s and Zainab’s eyes. Nevertheless, he is prompted to this role by her silent beauty and her eternal gratefulness. Also, it is not lost on him that he is protecting the virginal innocence of the helpless Zainab who is a victim of circumstances; she will lose the grace and destiny of her young life to the old, tyrannical, and bellicose chieftan unless he intervenes. He appoints himself as their savior and with the help of Nathaniel’s direction, Mirza portrays Sohail’s inner and outer beauty and panicky courage to perfection.
Nathaniel has contrived Sohail as a well constructed plot device to effect the mother’s and daughter’s escape and create involvement and interest; the likelihood of a man contravening custom to help out Allah Rakhi is perhaps a stretch. However, her characterizations are exceptional and solidly grounded; Sohail is not from the village, though he knows the chieftans. He has more urbanity and less parochialism. He is a truck driver used to the long haul, loneliness, and the wanderer’s “anything can happen” life on the road. As such Sohail is an adventurer and romantic less tied to custom; during conversations with Rakhi, he reveals he has suffered in his life, and like her has little to lose. Nathaniel also has cushioned the mystery of his helping them by suggesting his conflicting emotions within. For example initially, he isn’t going to help them, then he has a pang of conscience at their abject helplessness and relents.
Mirza’s excellent portrayal of Sohail’s development from being indifferent about mother and daughter to becoming concerned to the point of becoming their savior is masterful. The exceptional acting counterpoint of Aref and Mumtaz fits beautifully with his portrayal. As their journey together leaps, zig zags, races, and dodges death, Sohail and Allah Rakhi bond and there is between them an unspoken affection and trust. By virtue of his helping her, both face the same enemies and share the same goal of not being killed. Nathaniel ironically underscores that there is nothing like death threats from outside forces to bring people together.
Nathaniel cleverly moves her protagonists from conflict to conflict, from episodic scene to episodic scene increasing the tension until the dramatic climax. Why the adventure/drama/thriller works so well is not only because of the cinematography, music, and editing, but also because she has staged interesting characters against the uniquely exquisite terrain of the mountains, remote village and well chosen landscapes. Additionally, the intrigue is heightened because the social themes are organic and vital. This is a film simply about mothers and daughters, about the devastation of paternalistic traditions, about the obviation of women as positive, productive individuals in their own right. And it is about how a nullifying culture can become so brainlessly entrenched that it can remain destructive until the suffering victims recast themselves into life asserting individuals.
Through the heroism and courage of her protagonists, Nathaniel reveals that both men and women are integral to this reformulation as they mentor positive behaviors to a younger generation. It is the women of the culture who must take a stand against their own subjugation. They must not allow such cultural mores to predominate, not the grandmothers or the mothers. If one woman takes a stand to reverse the traditions and moves to let her daughter be her own thinking individual, this creates a vibrant symbolic example for others. And if the strongholds are to be brought down for men and women, there must be men who see how this recasting of custom ultimately can benefit them as well; it forges the hope for loving, successful relationships between them.
It took Afia Nathaniel 10 years to make this film which was Pakistan’s Oscar nomination in the Foreign Language Film Award category at the 87th Academy Awards. For her it was a labor of love to champion a cause close to her heart. Combining all the best elements of what makes for an outstanding film, Nathaniel’s first feature is not only an adventure-thriller-escape from “prison” saga, it also reinforces profound themes: women must not wait for others to act, but must transform their own oppressive cultural situations even if they have to risk their substance to do it.
In Dukhtar Nathaniel advocates not only for women in countries like Pakistan where child marriage is a custom that must be overturned, she is also affirming on a grander scale how both men and women should all live their lives. In the silent cry for freedom that her characters Allah Rakhi and the supportive Sohail lift up, the filmmaker presents that it is better to risk one’s life in the affirmation of life. This should abide rather than to renounce self-worth and identity by becoming the slave of death-filled philosophical ideas, lifestyle constructs or degenerating systems whose end result is power by the few. The message resonates not only for a remote village in Pakistan, but for cultures in the West that seek to displace women from positions of power because of residual paternalism and male cronyism. In both instances, individuals of both sexes are harmed. It takes forward thinking men and women to search out the pathways that will enhance productive inner and outer lifestyles for all.
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