‘Dukhtar’: Toronto Review
An illiterate mother sets out to rescue her 10-year-old daughter from an arranged marriage in an adventurous tale set in the mountains of Pakistan
Faced with the prospect of marrying her 10-year-old daughter to a man six times her age, a young mother makes the near-suicidal decision to go on the run across the towering mountains of Pakistan. The story has all the makings of a great against-all-odds adventure tale, abetted by spectacular location shooting and an outcome that is never a foregone conclusion. Dukhtar (Daughter) may not be 127 Hours, but Afia Nathaniel’s feature directing debut generates enough tension to fuel a harrowing real-life story while adding another unforgettable heroine to cinema from the region with Samiya Mumtaz’s measured portrayal of a Muslim woman taking charge of her life. For all these reasons it should have strong festival appeal following its bow in Toronto’s Discovery section.
In a key early scene, Nathaniel delicately describes the character and relationship of Allah Rakhi (Mumtaz) and her lively little girl Zainab (Saleha Aref) as the child, just home from school, tries to teach her mother to read and write. The tenderness and humor they convey in this role reversal set the bar high on their ambitions, which go beyond a traditional woman’s role in remote rural Pakistan and the feudal society in which they are chattel. The drama starts because of a long-standing tribal blood feud which has caused the loss of many men. As chief of their tribe, Allah Rakhi’s gray- bearded husband Daulat (Asif Khan) agrees to make peace by offering his daughter Zainab in marriage to his powerful, cruel rival Tor Gul (Abdullah Jaan.) The girl is so innocent she thinks babies are made by kissing, and her mother, who was married off to an elderly man at 15, winces. No screen time is wasted in psychological anguishing. Daulat opens the bedroom door one day and they are gone.
The first part of their flight is filmed like a nightmare as they attempt to get out of the village while Daulat’s and Tor Gul’s armed men hunt them. Rather alarmingly, their bright-colored costumes stand out like a sore thumb against the neutral stone dwellings, but that’s nothing compared to the effect of a wildly decorated two-story truck that appears on the road in front of them. The young driver Sohail, played with edgy verve by popular actor Mohib Mirza, could be their ticket to freedom, but not before a struggle with his conscience that turns him around in the viewer’s eye. Once again Nathaniel directs the actors (both of whom have stage backgrounds) in a delicate back-and-forth of half-said feelings with profound implications. Many narrow escapes later, these culminate in a legend Sohail passionately tells Allah Rakhi about two star-crossed lovers who turn into rivers, forever blending together in the mountains.
Allah Rakhi means “God protects” and never was a character better named. With her attentive face and mobile eyes, Mumtaz fills this quiet woman with dignity and repressed emotion. Little Aref, as the titular daughter, is a more exuberant version of her in miniature. The supporting cast is effectively scary, if 1D, as men with guns and bad intentions, offering brief glimpses into tribal life, chock full of violence and betrayal.
Unusual in this Pakistani-U.S.-Norwegian-Indian coprod is how it avoids the slick look of many global puddings while taking advantage of cinematic advances like on-location sound recording and top drawer cinematography by Armughan Hassain.
Production companies: Zambeel Films in association with The Crew Films, Indie Film, Mint Productions, Infinitum Productions
Cast: Samiya Mumtaz, Mohib Mirza, Saleha Aref, Ajab Gul, Adnan Shah Tipu, Abdullah Jaan, Samina Ahmed
Director-Screenwriter: Afia Serena Nathaniel
Producers: Afia Serena Nathaniel, Muhammad Khalid Ali
Co-producers: Cordelia Stephens, Carsten Aanonsen, Shrihari Sathe, Noman Waheed, Thea Kerman
Director of photography: Armughan Hassain
Production designer: Nauman Kashif
Editor: Armughan Hassain
Music: Peter Nashel
Sales: Dukhtar Productions
No rating, 93 minutes