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#TheUKAsianReview: Afia Nathaniel’s ‘Dukhtar’ breaks all the rules

Directed by Afia Nathaniel, ‘Dukhtar’ explores the issues that women face in Pakistan’s often-staggeringly chauvinistic society.

It is a society where perceptions of family ‘honor’, and a verbal agreement made by the patriarch of the house is cast in stone while the emotions of women and children - especially a girl child becomes subservient to the honor and the promise – irrespective of the impact on the woman or the girl child.

Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) is married off to Daulat Khan (Asif Khan) when she is barely 15, putting paid to all her dreams.

Ultimately, Allah Rakhi whiles her life away in remote northern Pakistan with just her husband and young daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref) - a girl that she does not want to go through the same personal humiliation that she has undergone.

Nathaniel establishes from the start how Allah Rakhi is reduced to nothing but a stranger within the confines of the home of Daulat Khan’s, a man who treats her no better than a commodity.

The story takes a twist when Daulat Khan, in order to restore peace in his personal life and community agrees to marry off his ten-year-old daughter to a powerful tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jaan) and orders his wife to prepare the youngster for marriage.

A horrified Allah Rakhi decides to run away with her daughter rather than subject her to this ignominy.

The story takes another twist when Allah Rakhi meets Sohail (Mohib Mirza) - the truck driver in whose truck she hides with her daughter.

Sohail agrees to help Allah Rakhi and the story moves into exploring a new relationship between a man and woman - one that is built on respect.

Along the way, romance begins to seep into the relationship between Allah Rakhi and Sohail but Nathaniel handles with tremendous subtlety, focusing on the way that Sohail is protective towards both Allah Rakhi and Zainab.

Nathaniel is also largely adept at keeping the tension at an entertainingly high level throughout although there are some parts that drag on for that much more than necessary. 

The dialogues aren’t always attention grabbing and could have been crisper.

While Mohib Mirza is an excellent actor himself, he didn’t quite fit the role of the truck driver – his personality and undoubted good looks slightly distracting from the character.

One of the things that really stand out is the chemistry between mother and daughter – utterly heart-warming and believable, it is a moving portrayal of what is the greatest bond of all.

Nathaniel’s use of some of the world’s most staggeringly beautiful landscapes – all in rural Pakistan – is in stark contrast to the regressive nature of Pakistani society. 

It is also commendable how Nathaniel didn’t take the stereotypical romantic path here to turn this film into a love story, where a married woman falls in love with another man.

Instead, she sticks to the story and highlights the sacred relationship between mother and daughter.

Overall, ‘Dukhtar’ is a triumph – especially considering that Nathaniel has worked tirelessly at it for nearly a decade, primarily due to the difficulty in finding backers for a movie that explores such a difficult topic.

With the brilliant acting performances, ‘Dukhtar’ evokes just the right emotions from the audience and brings to the fore a debate about the place of women in these patriarchal communities.

It’s also refreshing to see such courageous filmmaking in the Pakistani film industry, one which Nathaniel said was in “shambles”.

It may have taken ten years but ‘Dukhtar’ has broken innumerable rules, not least a film made by a woman about women.

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