I recently met someone who had become a parent again, after a very long period. They joked that it felt as if their excuse for having a child after so long was because “perhaps we had forgotten how to make one for all these years in between.”
It was a thought I returned to when thinking about Pakistani cinema for this piece. The much-abused term for describing the current stream of local films – “revival” – is still an accurate one. It makes reference to the fact that a generation or two ago, the cinema was a very integral medium of ideas in our society. Films shaped how we saw the world and how we saw ourselves, but then we seemed to forget how to make them for a while.
Dukhtar is a film from a time when this revival is still figuring itself out – not just in terms of ideas, but also in terms of infrastructure, finances, resources, logistics and much more. In most cinematic cultures, Dukhtar would be called an ‘independent’ film, or an example of ‘parallel cinema’. Yet in Pakistan’s context, the labels don’t make sense in the way they are meant because these are essentially describing the economics and financing of a film’s production. The history of alternative or new-wave cinematic movements is almost always a response to the commercial driven approach of studios. But with the film industry yet to be even established, one can’t begin to talk about a commercial approach, let alone reacting to one.
Dukhtar captures both the creative triumphs and failings of this exciting and evolving stage of Pakistani cinema. It is a film that defies the obvious and takes risks with its narrative, yet it is also one that gets stuck in its pacing and abrupt in its plot turns. It is a film with three very different acting performances and some of the most eloquent cinematography seen in recent films. It is often referred to as a film about child marriages but really it is a film about a road trip.
The road-trip involves Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), her daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref) and a truck driver named Sohail (Mohib Mirza). The mother and daughter have run away from home to escape Zainab’s marriage to a much older man, and Sohail is the person who reluctantly agrees to help them on their way. Throughout their journey, they are being chased by a variety of murderous men looking to reclaim the lost honour.
The plot of the film has a gentle, drifting narrative to it – particularly in the opening half – and its triumph is its refusal to be weighed down with platitudes or over-wrought messages. The plot is also deft with various symbols, with the suspense and chase of the mountainous part of the journey giving way towards a suggested, wistful romance as the road opens out into the plains. Yet the dialogues rarely do justice to the implicit ideas, often saying them out rather than suggesting them. Similarly, the plot’s pacing is often quite abrupt – this is used to brilliant effect in the scene when the escape takes place but later on in the film the approach struggles to segue from one set of ideas to the next.
In terms of the acting, the star performance is by young Saleha, whose role for Zainab was both written well and performed with a sincere naivety. Her precocious-ness was also the most ideal statement on the terrible nature of child marriages, and in that sense her performance made so much of the film’s ideas come to life. Samiya Mumtaz and Mohib Mirza are both in roles that are set up well to work as contrasts. Allah Rakhi’s simple yet fierce determination is her only protection from being extremely vulnerable, while Sohail’s magnanimity is the only example of a trustworthy male in the script. Samiya’s consider-able experience in television and theater leads to a performance delivered through implication, while Mohib’s versatile background shows in his extroverted acting. Yet somehow the tenor for both these roles and their performances never seems to reach a perfect pitch, and that is one of the film’s biggest flaws. Beyond the three leads, both Ajab Gul and Adnan Shah deliver a couple of very enjoyable cameos as the henchmen who form the chasing party.
The film’s greatest triumph is the cinematography, and it is one that deserves to be seen on the silver screen. Despite being shot on limited digital cameras and in very quick time, the film’s shots are regularly breathtaking. The journey in a gorgeous bejeweled truck through the mountains and plains into the dusty, colourful streets of Lahore is a delight throughout. The opening half is also notable for how often the shots are working to tell most of the story. The use of light, colour and space is repeatedly apparent and speaks of a maturity that one wouldn’t expect just yet.
While the soundtrack itself has some good songs, its use in the film was another sore point, since it often lacked the subtlety with which the frame had been composed and shot. Too often the songs seemed to flit in and out rather than make an impression. On the other hand though, what was very pleasing to see was that the dialogues and sound design were all recorded quite well. The glaring lack of facilities and personnel had meant that uneven, choppy or just poorly conceived sound was a regular feature of almost all the Pakistani films released last year.
Perhaps the most refreshing feature of this film was that unwittingly or not, it proved that there are still no set templates or identifiable rules for how to make a film in Pakistan. There are just so many stories, which haven’t had a chance to be heard in so long, and this is finally a chance for some of them to come out. Dukhtar is a film with several important flaws but they do not drown out the film’s simple and plentiful achievements.
Director: Afia Nathaniel