Dukhtar (Daughter) Dir. Afia Serena Nathaniel

[Zambeel Films; 2014]

Styles: feminism, on the run, cat and mouse
Others: He Named Me Malala, Aliens, The Joy Luck Club, Mad Max: Fury Road

“What will be my story?,” Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) asks aloud about halfway through the feminist Pakistani film Dukhtar. It’s a loaded question — Allah Rakhi (Urdu for “God saves”) was forced into an arranged marriage as a child, and she’s just kidnapped her daughter to keep her from being trapped in a similar situation. Until this moment, Allah Rakhi’s life has been defined by her country’s outdated, fundamentalist traditions. Now that she has broken free, with the future uncertain, what will be her legacy?

At the onset of the film, the elders of two feuding tribes meet to discuss putting an end to the vengeful bloodshed between them. Tor Gul, the more powerful of the men, settles on the solution of uniting the tribes through the sacred bond of marriage. For him, this means taking as his bride Daulat Khan’s (Asif Khan) ten-year old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Araf). When Allah Rakhi discovers this plan, she seizes her daughter and flees their rural mountainside village. At first her actions seem clearly impulsive. She doesn’t seem to have a clear destination in mind, probably not expecting to be able to elude both Tor Gul’s and her husband’s men who are sent after them. But by the time they enlist the assistance of Sohail (Mohib Mirza) and his garishly decorated and easily noticeable truck, Allah Rakhi realizes that they must make it to Lahore, her mother’s hometown. Allah Rakhi has not been there since her childhood, and it represents a safe haven and place of rebirth for her and her daughter.

The story unfolds patiently, but not without tension. Though billed as a thriller, it is not some Bourne Identity-riff on Pakistani gender equality. There is no cathartic retribution on Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s pursuers. There is no shootout in a bazaar on the border of Lahore. There is no passionate kiss-as-denouement between Allah Rakhi and Sohail (though there is a fair bit of sexual tension). Director Afia Serena Nathaniel, in her feature debut, displays a great handle on storytelling, dealing with heavy themes and their implications without being heavy-handed. It’s a movie with a sermon, but it never feels like you’re being preached to.

Nathaniel’s portrayal of modern Pakistan is stinging. The terrain is rocky, mountainous, and uninhabitable. The country’s “modern” amenities (flip phones, 13-inch TVs, soap operas) are as outdated as their views on marriage and women. Men use the threat of violence to control, and emphasize honor and possession over humanity. Moral compasses are askew. For her first film, Nathaniel chose a grave subject — a burdensome undertaking, but also a honorable and important one. She wrote, directed, produced, and co-edited the film, which she shot on location in Pakistan with a crew of forty men. Inspired by the true story of a Pakistani woman who kidnapped her daughters to save them from child marriages, Nathaniel dedicated the film to her mother and her motherland. What will be her legacy? Poorer legacies have been left. Poorer stories have been told.

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