Boasting lush visuals, a thrilling story, and an urgent message, Afia Nathaniel's assured debut is a remarkable experience.
Writer-director Afia Nathaniel’s debut feature Dukhtar (Daughter) is an important and urgent film depicting the unfortunately accepted practice in Pakistan of a child (in this case, as it often is, a girl) being given away for marriage to settle a blood feud. But even more than that, Dukhtar is a thrilling and vibrant adventure film that beautifully captures the love a mother has for her daughter, and the lengths she will go in order to ensure her daughter’s protection.
The film begins when 15-year-old Allah Rakhi is given in marriage to the older tribal chief Daulat Khan (Asif Khan). Ever since the marriage, Allah Rakhi has been completely separated from her family and robbed of finishing any education she could’ve hoped for. Later, a now grown Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) shares a 10-year-old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref), with Daulat. Upon learning that Daulat has promised Zainab to rival tribe leader Tor Gul (Abdullah Jaan), Allah Rakhi decides to flee with her young daughter to save Zainab from the same fate she suffered. After a harrowing escape the mother and daughter come upon truck driver Sohail (Mohib Mirza), who agrees to help them escape. From there, the film excels as the journey bonds the three of them together, creating the emotional core of the film.
The success of this intriguing story is tied to Nathaniel’s assured direction, who creates one of the more stunning debuts of the last several years. Nathaniel’s biggest triumph is that, while dealing with large and important issues, she never allows them to overshadow the narrative at hand, showing a strong command of story and structure. The pacing may feel rushed at the beginning, but it adds to the nightmarish quality of the early escape scenes before letting the film open up in the second half.
Helping Nathaniel accomplish the transition from the escape to the journey that follows is the work of cinematographer and editor Armughan Hassan. Hassan does excellent work using the film’s mountainous locations to capture some of the most lush and beautiful images of the year, a far cry from the chaotic and claustrophobic visuals filling the early scenes. The use of color is another strength in his work, often contrasting the bright wardrobe of Allah Rakhi and Zainab against the harsh, muted tones of their surroundings. The only element of Hassan’s visuals that doesn’t work is a reliance on soft focus and rack focusing during a few scenes, but not enough can be said about the beautiful landscapes Hassan captures, bringing the work of Terrence Malick to mind (which is just about the highest praise I can think of for a cinematographer).
In front of the camera, Samiya Mumtaz delivers a wonderful performance as a mother doing everything she can to save her child against all odds. It’s a performance that can be gut-wrenching at times, but is almost never without hope. Mohib Mirza is strong as well, providing a welcome presence in the latter half of the film as his character begins to care and look out for Allah Rakhi and Zainab. And Saleha Aref is solid in the role of Zainab, but doesn’t have as much to do as she takes a back seat to her two co-stars as the film progresses. Outside of these three the rest of the supporting cast is far too one-note and ineffective to leave much of an impression, their near mustache-twirling villainy out-of-place amongst an otherwise great film.
Overall, Dukhtar is a powerful and moving film capable of providing more thrills than your average blockbuster, a rare and exciting combination from an emerging filmmaker. With a mostly strong cast and skillful crew, this is a film that shouldn’t be missed. And it will be interesting to see where an interesting voice like Nathaniel will go from here.
Dukhtar is currently playing in limited release across the US. To find out more information about the film and where it’s playing, visit www.dukhtarthefilm.com.