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Foreign Oscar Entry Review: ‘Dukhtar’

Foreign Oscar Entry Review: 'Dukhtar'

Dominated by the commercial trends of the region, which mostly align with India’s outlandish Bollywood, the Pakistani film industry rarely offers
productions that tackle its society’s specific challenges from a progressive perspective. Under this system, creating a film that questions the ancient
patriarchal structures and the way they hinder women’s ability to flourish as individuals was even a more unlikely reality. To highlight the torment that
is brought upon women forced into a life of servitude and silence, director Afia Nathaniel, a Pakistani women herself who knows this world and its negative
repercussions, focused her efforts on a singular quest to end the cycle. Her defiant debut feature “Dukhtar” or “Daughter” follows a mother and her young
daughter traveling through rural landscapes to escape the predetermined future chosen by the men that claim to own them.

Accustomed to the only life she’s ever known, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), a young mother and wife living in a small mountain village, tries to channel all her unfilled
hopes into her playful ten-year-old daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref). Still unaware of how her voice will be terribly silenced once she becomes someone’s property against
her will, cheeky Zainab enjoys spending time with her mother and teaching her English. Her distant father Daulat Khan (Asif Khan) is much more concerned with finding a
solution for an ongoing tribal dispute. Taking advantage of Daulat Khan’s desperation, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), the rival leader, demands Zainab’s hand in marriage in
order to end the bloodshed. The girl’s father agrees. Jeopardizing her own life, Allah Rakhi runs off with her daughter without a plan. Her only objective
is to safeguard her innocence and to offer her the one gift she was never given: a choice.

As expected, both Tor Gul’s and Daulat Khan’s henchmen are sent to find them at any cost. Their mission is to bring Zainab back alive regardless of what
happens to her mother. Along the way Allah Rakhi befriends Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a kindhearted man who decides helping her get her daughter to safety is the right thing
to do. Through such nerve-racking journey Allah Rakhi discovers what it means to be treated as whole and meaningful person and not just a silent spectator
at the mercy of another’s wishes. Assertively, Nathaniel decides not to take the romantic path and reduce her protagonist into a woman falling into another
man’s arms. Instead, she concentrates her efforts in exploring he broken bond between mothers and daughters due to an ideology in which their contributions
are not appreciated and alienation is the deadliest weapon.

Allah Rakhi has not been allowed to see her mother ever since she got married, and the same was to be expected for Zainab’s life. Cut off from their own
worlds women are reduced to be perpetual strangers in the homes of the men that don’t known beyond their role as a commodity. As Allah Rakhi, Samiya Mumtaz gives
a topnotch performance that shines for its restraint. She is a woman driven by her love for her daughter, which allows her to confront the inherent fear implanted in her. Her work is a
standout and crucial piece in “Dukhtar.” It’s evident that the film centers on the lack of freedom that women experience not only in Pakistan but in
numerous traditional societies, yet, Afia Nathaniel manages to showcase her homeland’s beauty and makes it clear that this is not a story about gender
confrontation, but about an securing and equal opportunity to find fulfillment.

With its evocative musical score and by cinematographer Armughan Hassan‘s gorgeous vistas that adorned the chaotic road, “Dukhtar” is a small gem forged out the director’s desire to craft
a story which, tough small in scope, could connect with Pakistani people on a more profound level than the shiny musical tales in mainstream local cinema
ever could. This is in its own right a groundbreaking film unlike anything done by a director from this particular part of the world. It’s art and social change united in harmony via soulful storytelling. Nathaniel’s vision
captures the heart of this broken bond that must be rebuilt, for mothers, for daughters, for all.

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