Pakistan’s 2014 Oscar entry, “Dukhtar,” is a handsomely made, nicely modulated fugitive drama with forceful social overtones that decries the ongoing practice of marrying child brides in tribal regions of the country’s mountainous north. New York-based scripter-helmer Afia Nathaniel certainly doesn’t shy away from challenges, since the film’s exceptional location work in remote areas of the Punjab couldn’t have been easy, but the gamble paid off, and the pic not only is a natural for human-rights fests but could also see modest action on Stateside arthouse screens.
While unquestionably an issue-based pic, “Dukhtar,” which means “daughter” in Urdu, works well on its own terms, and in her feature debut, Nathaniel proves her mettle in a national industry where distaff directors are rare. The setting is the Hunza Valley, a place still riven by blood feuds in which powerless women and girls are frequently used as bargaining chips. Charismatic Zainab (Saleha Aref), 10, is good at school and a source of strength to her mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz). Father Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), significantly older than his wife, is a tribal leader engaged in a violent spat with neighboring headman Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan).
Already 17 people are dead thanks to the feud, and after the latest killing, Tor Gul tells Daulat Khan there’s only one way to stop the bloodshed: Give him Zainab in marriage. For Allah Rakhi (whose name means “God protects”), herself a child bride at 15, the thought of her daughter going through a similar experience is too much, so she and Zainab flee. They’re fortunate to encounter trucker Sohail (popular heartthrob Mohib Mirza), who offers to take them to his destination further south in Punjab. It’s not Lahore, where Allah Rakhi plans to reunite with her mother (Samina Ahmed), but at least it’s a start.
Meanwhile, Tor Gul’s violent henchman Ghorzang Khan (Adnan Shah Tipu) is hot on their trail. Though initially reluctant to help, Sohail realizes the danger his passengers are in and protects them; the fact that he’s ex-mujahid means he’s better equipped than most to keep them safe. But when his truck stalls, the three are forced to flee on foot, donkey and whatever conveyance they can find.
Nathaniel is especially sensitive to the placement of figures in their environment, never losing her characters but ensuring that the landscape plays a key role in the frame, not just in scenes shot among Pakistan’s spectacular mountain passes. Sohail’s garishly decorated truck, replete with spangles, gewgaws and bright colors, isn’t exactly a great place for Allah Raki and Zainab to hide, but it does make for exceptional imagery when set against wide open spaces. Once the trio gets to Lahore, Nathaniel adeptly upends the initial rush of freedom in the anonymous big city by hemming in her protags with jostling crowds and noise at a fair, cleverly building tension via a combination of humor and dread.
Occasionally the film is guilty of a little overstatement, as in a shot, heavy with implication, of chickens roasting on a spit when the characters are at a rest stop. But her script is mostly more intelligent than that, and she’s fortunate in her choice of actors, many of whom are well known at home. Locals as well as offshore auds will be particularly impressed by the visuals, nicely balanced between intimacy (including occasional p.o.v. shots) and crisp grandeur.