Saturday, November 22, 2014

SAIFF ’14: Dukhtar

Zainab is supposed to be the child-bride daughter of a child-bride mother. At just fifteen years old (frankly, not so very young by Islamist standards), Allah Rakhi (meaning “God protects”) was married off to a much older tribal chieftain. Now her ten year old daughter is to be a peace-offering to any even older rival clan leader. Refusing to consign her daughter to a fate worse than her own, the mother flees with her child into the mountains in Afia Serena Nathaniel’s Dukhtar (trailer here), Pakistan’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which screens tonight at the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival.

Allah Rakhi’s initial escape is rather clever, but she does not have much a plan after that. She really has nobody to turn to, since her “husband” has prohibited any contact with her family since their marriage. Since Zainab is now considered the property of creepy old Tor Gul, both clans are out to capture her and kill her mother. That would be their idea of “honor.” Into this misogynist tribalism drives trucker and former mujahidin veteran Sohail. At first, he is reluctant to shelter the fugitive women, but he soon becomes their ardent protector. They will need him.

Let us be clear, nobody is terrorizing Allah Rakhi and their daughter because they are upset about drone strikes or resent America’s friendship with a democratic state like Israel. No, it is simply the thing to do for its own sake. This is a harrowing depiction of institutionalized misogyny and the pain and desperation it causes. Yet, as bracing as Dukhtar is, Nathaniel’s symbolic imagery often has a poetic beauty. She and her cinematographer tandem of Armughan Hassan and Najaf Bilgrami also vividly capture the vast splendor of the mountain vistas, so the film isn’t just a slap in the face.

Nathaniel gets a critical assist from her leads, who are surprisingly subtle, but still deeply expressive. It is particularly powerful to watch Samiya Mumtaz convey all the fear, confusion, and anger Allah Rakhi has been forced to guardedly bottle up. She also forges some ambiguous but genuinely touching chemistry with Mohib Mirza’s Sohail, who handles his own significant character development arc rather sure-footedly. Even young Saleha Aref is quite grounded and believably restrained as Zainab.

Watching Dukhtar leads one to abandon all hope for Pakistan, but the mere fact they submitted it for Academy Award consideration (and the likely attention that comes as a result) could be considered a hopeful sign. Despite a rough patch here or there, Dukhtar is a compelling narrative, featuring several mature, well-balanced performances. It is an important film for multiple reasons that demands a wider audience. Enthusiastically recommended, Dukhtar screens tonight (11/22), as part of this year’s SAIFF.