London Film Festival – Review – Dukhtar ★★★★

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Directed by Afia Nathaniel, her first feature and Pakistan’s Oscar contender this year, Dukhtar is all about role reversals in a remote world where battles between insurgent groups over contested Kashmir imprison the women into traditional wife and child bearing servitude, unable to question male authority, especially when that male authority is backed up by an AK 19. No mercy must be shown if a woman disobeys her husband and a man will easily kill his wife whilst doting on his daughter. But challenging this authority is exactly what Allah Rakhi(meaning ‘God protects’)finds herself having to do if she is to save the future of her child, promised by her husband Daulat Asif Khan)to the leader of another tribe Tor Gull(Abdullah Jaan), to prevent further blood shed and a joining of forces to claim Kashmir.

Contemporary Pakistan. A child lies dreamily in a boat gazing at the blue sky. All seems warm and sunny, a romanticised childhood. Cut to the child Zainab (Salehah Aref) asleep in bed in a hut in the mountains in Kashmir. She awakens in fear and stares haphazardly at the door of the hut, which from her POV shot, is tilted to one side and at an angle, exactly like the shot in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, when he too wakes from an idealised dream stricken with fear. Right from the onset is the presence of fear and a heightened sense of awareness which never quite leaves us as we watch Zainab and her mother Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) practice English over the dinner table in a role reversal, little Zainab, not even in her teens, the ardent and strict teacher to Allah Rakhi’s obedient and funny student, and continues and journeys with them to the film’s more sunnier ending.

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Determined that Zainab should not suffer her own fate(married off at 15)Allah Rakhi concocts an elaborate escape plan which includes a bizarre chase sequence in a rickety gaudy decorated pink truck driven by the lost Sohail, a reformed mujahideen(Mohib Mirza). As Allah Rakhi and Sohail form an emotional closeness based on love and the gap between them and Tor Gull widens, the breadth of Pakistan’s culture and demographic and its difference with Kashmir is also explored.

How accidentally ending up in one region by mistake could be your death sentence, how walking into another will see you treated as a guest. The biggest shock, however, is the cultural and economic difference between places like Lahore in Punjab and the poorest out regions in Kashmir. To get her point across, Afia Nathaniel’s camera zooms in on smart shiny buckled shoes and Western clothes and kids out with their families for a Sunday jaunt- the contrast between Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s lives could not be greater.

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But this is not overly exploited, poverty is not a major theme, although spiritual poverty is. It took Afia Nathaniel 10 years to make this film in one of the most dangerous war torn regions in the world. She suffered threats of violence to get it made and also had to find the funding herself- in amongst the contributors are The National Geographic and The Hubert Bals Fund.

A film worth seeing, a film about a place where insurgents run their tribes as though living in a feudal system- and nicely contrasted with a more forward thinking progressive Pakistan whose violence rejecting reformed mujahideens are the regions hope and future for peace. Afia Nathaniel is quoted as saying that “A film represents a nation’s conscience. Whether it’s good, bad, positive or ugly, opening a dialogue is my job as a filmmaker.” Let’s hope that the film gets the distribution it deserves not just in Western territories but in those regions where it needs to be seen most and of whom it is about.

For tickets to Dukhtar book here

verity is a writer, filmmaker & workshop leader with an avid interest in all the arts, but particularly film & theatre. She writes about theatre for theatrebubble and short stories for Unintentional Hermits.