10 years in the making and many challenges overcome along the way, Fariha couldn’t wait to watch Dukhtar…
Being Pakistani myself and on the precarious verge of boycotting Pakistani cinema, I felt a sense of relief and hope when I first saw the trailer for Dukhtar – I may not have to betray my fellowmen afterall. What made the anticipation even greater, was not only the opportunity to watch the film in the classic Prince Charles cinema at the opening night of the London Asian Film Festival, packed with like-minded enthusiasts, but also having the director sitting amongst the spectators. Speaking to director Afia Nathaniel before watching the movie, provided me with an interesting insight into the challenges faced whilst making the film, which took me into the screening with a sizeable amount of respect for the story from the onset and before I had even experienced it.
Dukhtar, meaning daughter in Pashto, stays true to its title, as a tale set in the tribal regions of Northern Pakistan, which focuses on the heart-warming and close knit relationship between mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) and daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref). When Zainab is betrothed to an elderly man in a bid to garner peace between two rival tribes, Allah Rakhi, who was also married to an older man, is left with no choice but to save her daughter from a cruel fate, and flees the area. What follows is their journey of escaping the clutches of the angry tribal lords.
Up until this point, the story was panning out just as I had expected, and what I expected to resume was a harrowing series of events, as is customary in such a genre of Pakistani cinema, with associations of violence and brutality. So, just as I began to mentally prepare myself to witness horrific scenes, I was totally stumped when the story stumbles upon the colourful character of Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a truck driver who unwittingly attempts to help them along their turbulent liberation. The emergence of Sohail with his endearing Punjabi accent and nature, reassures the audience that this is not just going to be another sad old tale of oppressed women, against the backdrop of misogynistic Pakistan. But what did slightly disappoint the feminist in me, was that Sohail did slightly steal the heroic status from Allah Rakhi, since despite her bravado, she still needed the assistance of a man to save the day. The audience is forced to embrace the fact that without Sohail, the mother and daughter probably would not have lasted that long, there would be no story, or I guess, the story would have fallen victim to a downward and dark spiral, which we are so accustomed to.
In that respect, Dukhtar was so refreshing, and what contributed to the feel good factor, were the stunning scenes captured throughout – from the picturesque, snow-capped mountain range of the North, to the contrasting colourful and authentic bustling streets of Lahore. Each cinematographic marvel was mesmerising and resonated images of Imtiaz Ali’s shots of neighbouring, nomadic India in his movie Highway. When Afia explained the difficult conditions in which these scenes were filmed, this definitely enabled me to view the film in an admirable light: ‘The biggest challenge was finding the money first of all, for a film like this that has two women at the helm of it, with no conventional hero and no item song. The next big challenge was the filming location, the sheer logistics, as we were in Gilgit for two months on the go, in minus 13 degrees Celsius and to keep your sanity, health and safety in a time when there was sectarian tension, it was a difficult time. But then there’s never a good time to film in Pakistan! So, you always have to embrace things and go forth. We took a deep breath and the whole cast and crew really gave it their 200 percent and made it happen. For that, I’m really grateful to them.’
I particularly enjoyed the nostalgia of exploring the beauty and culture of Pakistan, which is rare to savour and appreciate on the big screen. The acting was superb by all, but Safiya Mumtaz stole the show, as she was so convincing and suited the role perfectly, whilst Mohib Mirza was also likeable and believable, although it has to be said that he looked a little too refined and polished for an unruly truck driver. Anyone who has met a Pakistani truck driver would tell you his image was not very convincing, but I am personally willing to overlook this, based on his successful delivery of the role and character. If by the end of a movie you feel attached to the characters, that surely accounts for a flawlessly skilled art of storytelling for me – and that is exactly what Afia has successfully achieved. The twist of a love story, although unexpected, gives a light hearted edge to the story, without which something would have felt amiss, afterall - who doesn’t hope for a happy ending?! One is left with a flutter of emotions, an amalgamation of nostalgia and awe, along with feelings of poignancy and endearment for the passionate love of a mother for her child.
I couldn’t leave without asking Afia about her views on Pakistani cinema, to which she provided some insight: ‘It’s a very exciting time to be making films in Pakistan. I liken it to a point where there’s plenty of planes parked on the run way and they’re all ready to take off. So there’s no dearth of talent in our industry, it’s a matter of having the discipline to making a feature film which is a completely different beast of an industry than any other. I can see more of that happening. But I do believe for any real change to happen within our own industry, there needs to be a critical mass of such films coming out, because you want your films to not just play and die in Pakistan, but to also have a life outside of the country and live a robust life, through festivals etc. What I would really like to see is more and more films embracing that kind of a business model, to come out and tell these stories because the market is ready for the taking. We should make all kinds of films and genres, such as sci-fi and fantasy!
I must admit, Afia’s enthusiasm, passion and optimism is contagious, so I can only remain hopeful that other Pakistani talents catch her sentiments and attitude towards Pakistani cinema. For that reason and so many others after watching the beautifully made Dukhtar, I have a great amount of respect for Afia as a filmmaker.
Find out more about Dukhtar here