Based on a true story, writer-director Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar is an unsentimental tribute to the transformative power of maternal love. A tribal leader in the northern reaches of Pakistan agrees to marry his 10-year-old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref), to Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), the middle-aged head of a neighboring tribe, in order to settle a feud. Zainab is far too innocent to comprehend what’s in store, but her mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), knows what kind of wall her vivacious daughter is about to crash into, since her own marriage at age 15 was, she says, when “my story ended.”
In just a few short, economical scenes at the start of the film, Nathaniel establishes the easy, teasing intimacy between mother and daughter, who appear to be each other’s closest companions. So it’s clear just what’s at stake when, in an act of desperation that’s all the more impressive because it seems so hopeless, Allah Rakhi spirits Zainab out of the house on what was to be her wedding day as Tor Gul’s terrifying right-hand man roars into pursuit, loading two henchmen with machine guns into the bed of his pickup truck and telling Zainab’s father: “She was yours. Now she is ours.”
The first part of Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s journey is a visual metaphor for the trap they’re in, as they scramble through a claustrophobic maze of high-walled alleys or hide in the cellar of a neighbor’s house, seemingly unable to break out of their immediate neighborhood. The landscape opens up when they get to the long, winding highway Allah Rakhi hopes to follow to Lahore in order to meet up with her own mother, Rukhsana (Samina Ahmad), who her husband has forbidden her to contact since she left home. But the wide-open spaces only introduce a new set of dangers, making it easier for their pursuers to spot Allah Rakhi and Zainab and all but painting a target on their backs. Their vividly colored clothes, beautiful against the mostly brown desert backgrounds, emphasize how out of place the two are in this region, where women simply don’t travel, let alone hitchhike, without a male escort.
Thankfully, Allah Rakhi finally catches some luck when the truck she sneaks onto turns out to be driven by a reluctant champion. Sohail (Mohib Mirza), the handsome and shaggy-haired young driver, is sick to death of tribal warfare and brave enough to risk Tor Gul’s wrath by helping his bride-to-be to escape. The delicately portrayed attraction between Allah Rakhi and Sohail and the way the three begin to coalesce into a family can feel a bit predictable at times, as when Allah Rakhi and Sohail exchange abbreviated life stories at night, faces glowing in the light of a campfire, but Mumtaz grounds the film in a granular emotional authenticity. The actress radiates a mixture of grave intelligence and sensitivity, giving both nuance and weight to Allah Rakhi’s pained concern for her daughter’s welfare.
And on the rare occasions when Allah Rakhi can let down her guard, Mumtaz unlooses a lovely, dimpled smile that reveals a lively sense of fun. It’s a poignant glimpse of the capacity for joy and mischief that this sternly focused, generally joyless-seeming woman has had to tamp down for so many years, though she’s only in her mid 20s—barely out of adolescence, by middle-class American standards. The only time she relaxes enough to smile, before running away from home, is when she’s alone with Zainab.
The film functions as a love letter to Pakistan, despite the misogynistic culture it exposes. Nathaniel takes advantage of the road trip/chase formula to showcase majestic landscapes and convey a sense of life on the highway the three are traveling along, where livestock may wander across the road at any time and the radio is likely to be broadcasting a plangent local ballad. But Dukhtar’s main source of beauty is the love shown by its mothers, Rukhsana and Allah Rakhi. The risks they take to protect and support their daughters, in defiance of a culture designed to strip girls and women of every shred of autonomy, is as heroic as it is heartwarming.