Slated for release this year, the film, Dukhtar (Persian for “Daughter”), by Afia Nathaniel, an independent Pakistani filmmaker, has begun to generate quite a buzz in the local entertainment industry.
A nail-biting, ambitious drama/thriller set in northern Pakistan, Dukhtar follows Allah Rakhi and her young daughter, Zainab, who are on the run. The production is based on a human rights issue significant to South Asia: child marriages. On discovering that her 10-year-old daughter is to be wed to a tribal leader, Tor Khan, Allah Rakhi embarks on a tense escape from her village with her little girl in tow.
In 1999, Nathaniel heard of a story she never forgot: A Pakistani woman had left her husband and fled with her daughters, only to be persistently hunted by her family. The filmmaker was inspired. “Her journey of escape was a harrowing tale spread over several years,” Nathaniel says, “What remained in my mind was the vision of this one woman and her extraordinary courage.”
Nathaniel wrote Dukhtar while undertaking an MFA in Film Directing at Columbia University in New York. While at grad school the filmmaker found herself feeling extremely nostalgic about her homeland; writing provided a much-needed, cathartic release. “The writer in me found a way to connect with home through this story. And the wanderer in me crafted the character of Allah Rakhi so I could give her the freedom to find a new life with her daughter.”
“I come from a family of very strong women,” Nathaniel says. “Women who have endured tough lives to give a better life to their children.” Through Dukhtar, Nathaniel hopes that the sacrifices made by Pakistani women for their children are never forgotten.
Interestingly, in creating Allah Rakhi’s character, the filmmaker drew on her own maternal great grandmother, a tough woman who went against the grain, living a life of strength, courage, grace and resilience.
“My great grandmother became a widow very early in life in Quetta and her husband left her penniless with four young children,” Nathaniel states, “She became a school teacher and raised her four children by herself, choosing to stay in Quetta alone rather than going back to the tribal areas where she came from. She had a will of steel and nothing deterred her in life. So while I was filming Dukhtar I felt very close to the spirit of her journey. And from it, I derived a lot of strength to undertake this very ambitious film project.”
It has been an emotional journey for Nathaniel. For one, the production took ten years to complete, a period during which the filmmaker had a daughter herself. “The journey has been all the more personal, all the more emotional and all the more satisfying,” she says.
Pakistan’s film industry is effectively non-existent. This has led independent Pakistani filmmakers like Nathaniel to produce their own thought-provoking work. It also meant that funding a movie that stars women, is made by a woman, and examines women’s rights in Pakistan was a major challenge.
“It is incredibly hard to find financing for a film which has female protagonists if the writer-director also happens to be a woman. On top of that, the film is set in Pakistan. Our actors are not known in the international market,” she explains. “Our local film industry is in a shambles. Our local financiers want to see masala films with women wearing almost nothing dancing and gyrating on the screen. In short, local films are made to cater to the male fantasy.”
She continues; “Therefore, to make a film about a mother who wants to save her daughter from a child marriage in this kind of industry and to not compromise on the quality of the film for an international audience – it was a huge battle.”
Given the steady sprinkle of local Pakistani movies made by independent filmmakers, is the country now witnessing a slow (and steady) revival of Pakistani cinema? Nathanial answers: “We stand at a very interesting crossroads in Pakistani cinema today. I believe there is a lot of great talent in the country which can make local stories for global audiences and that is key to any true revival that we allude to in cinema. We also need to embrace diversity within our storytelling culture and not just push for one kind of cinema – the masala sort or the commercial sort. There should be all kinds of films for all kinds of audiences. Why limit ourselves to just this or just the Iranian cinema? I keep hearing how we should make films like the Iranians. Well, why stop at just Iran. Why not make films like the Mexicans? What a fantastic new wave of films and filmmakers are coming out from all over the world. Why limit our inspiration to one country or one kind of cinema?”
To be released in Pakistan next month, Nathaniel hopes local audiences enjoy her debut film. “[It is] a beautiful story with a beautiful heart,” she says, “A little introspection through films is a good thing for a nation’s conscience.”
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: sonjarehman [at] gmail.com