South Asian cinema has come to the point at which the international community has begun to take closer notice. Films, the vast majority of which hail from India's burgeoning Hindi independent cinema, are appearing on international film festival rosters at a rapidly increasing rate. So at this point, the fact that a film from south Asia garners attention is becoming more commonplace, though still a relatively rare occurence. What is not so common, however, is a film coming from anywhere outside of that insular Indian independent community. Dukhtar
, Pakistan's submission to the 2014 Academy Awards, is that rare bird that could easily soar beyond its meager origins if given the means.
This is by no means the first Pakistani film we've covered. In fact, it was just this summer that I had the honor to profess my great admiration for Pakistani ex-pat Hammad Khan's Anima State
, an avant-garde expose of the post-colonial nation's growing pains and internal struggle. However, that film, while an experience well worth having, had no chance of making it to actual cinema screens. Dukhtar
, on the other hand, feels like a more conventional film, one that a wider audience could get behind, and one that tells a story that needs to be told. Where Anima State
focused on the tempermental and agitated urban Pakistan, Dukhtar
casts its gaze further afield, to the tribal regions that we hear so much about in Western news reports.Dukhtar
is the story of a girl of ten, Zainab, and her mother Alla Rakhi and their harrowing journey from their forced tribal marriages to a place where hope may bloom. Zainab is also the daughter of a rural tribal chief named Daulat Khan who, in an effort to quell a deadly feud with a neighboring tribe, promises her in marriage to the rival clan's patriarch, the elderly Tor Gul. In spite of his misgivings about marrying away his 10 year old daughter, it's essentially a business transaction and Daulat Khan is satisfied with the terms. Alla Rakhi, a victim of just such an alliance at the tender age of 15 to Daulat Khan, has other ideas and does the only thing she can think of. She runs.
Her absconsion triggers duelling manhunts. Tor Gul's clan wants to find the woman and the girl and kill them because they consider the girl property and their property has been stolen, the sentence for this theft is death. Daulat Khan's clan wants to find them because they've brought disgrace to the family, the sentence for this loss of face is death. Either way, Allah Rakhi and Zainab have no choice but to keep running. When they stumble upon a lorrie driver on a mountain road, they insert themselves into his truck in the hopes that he'll take them somewhere safe, though the driver Sohail, played by TV star Mohib Mizra, it not completely sure he wants to take on the responsibility. One desperate act of near infanticide later, Sohail realizes the stakes and makes the fateful decision to take on these passengers, putting all three of them in harm's way.
While the first third of Dukhtar
is largely concerned with setting the scene and conveying the horrid circumstances in which Allah Rakhi and the carefree Zainab live and will potentially die, the final two thirds are an all out race toward the hope that lays within Pakistan's urban center, Lahore. We ride for miles along the northern Pakistani roads, with nothing to look at but the dirt, the mountains, and each other. The trio forms a bond that moves fluidly from romantic to fraternal to parental and back again. Allah Rakhi is shown a life that she could have had, Sohail understands the responsibility he has taken on and becomes the moral guardian and center that the film requires. Zainab, while not entirely unaware of her situation and surroundings, stubbornly refuses to be anything but the unspoiled, unsullied pure soul that she is, bringing light to her compatriots at the time when they need it most. It is this purity that completely convinces both Allah Rakhi and Sohail that they now have a single goal in life, to preserve Zainab's innocence at all costs.
Director Afia Nathaniel has made what is both a harrowing and beathtaking cinematic adventure. Dukhtar
is an expose of the appaling tribal practices in the furthest reaches of Pakistan, where the rule of central government holds no sway. Beyond that, it's the story of how easily humanity can be lot, and conversely, how hard it can be to preserve what humanity dwells within the innocent children around us all. Zainab sees terrible, terrible things, she is the victim of threats of physical and sexual violence, yet she bounces back in a way that only children can. While she will likely need the services of a therapist by the time she hits young adulthood, she'll be alive to do it, and that trade off isn't so bad.
I'm not a big fan of message movies, and I'm not a huge fan of film that present themselves as essential. However, with Dukhtar
, the illumination of these practices is something that any socially conscious person should find appalling. Much like with Titli
, Liar's Dice
, and any number of other Indian message movies, Dukhtar
finds peace and passion in the plight of the downtrodden in this remote part fo the world. To reward that passion with attention and acknowledgement is the least we can do. Highly recommended.