The term ‘parallel cinema’ doesn’t serve a purpose in Pakistan; not because there aren’t enough stories to tell but simply because of the very meaning of the word ‘parallel’. For a parallel to exist, two things must run along side each other. Till the time that mainstream cinema persists in the country, parallel cinema can’t exist by a long shot.
Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar is a film that, due to its ‘interesting concept’, will possibly be categorised as a product of parallel cinema. But it’s films like this that make us realise that Pakistani cinema is more in need of ‘unparalleled’ quality of storytelling than mediocre films that are lauded in the name of ‘parallel’ cinema.
Dukhtar opens with a woman, dressed in white, rowing a boat as we cut to the medium shot of another woman cooking food as her husband comes and sits in the same frame. With their backs facing each other, they seem like strangers living under one roof. With no words spoken, the visual treat of a scene instantly grips one’s attention.
The housewife is Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) who also has a 10-year-old daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref) with her estranged husband Daulat Khan (Asif Khan). What’s antithetical to the couple’s relationship is the bond between the mother and daughter. Allah Rakhi and Zainab share a playful moment when the latter tries to teach her mori (mother) the English words she learnt at school.
Now enters the most twisted character of the story, Shehbaz Khan (Ajab Gul). Khan is a close associate of Daulat, but knows Allah Rakhi since ‘their’ childhood. When he finds Allah Rakhi alone, he reminisces about the time he first saw her and professes that he would have asked for her hand in marriage had she not tied the knot with Daulat. One wonders where the two met for the first time. If it was in Lahore (the city Allah Rakhi was brought up in), then Shehbaz’s Pashtoon accent and attire don’t add up.
What follows is an expected chain of events, where Daulat ends a tribal feud by pledging to get his daughter married to an opposition member —30-something Ghorzang Khan (Adnan Shah Tipu). The news reminds Allah Rakhi of how she was made to marry Daulat when she was only 15 and decides she wouldn’t let her daughter suffer a similar fate. And so she escapes with Zainab.
And then we meet a truck driver named Sohail (Mohib Mirza) who becomes the mother-daughter’s only ray of hope as they run from the enraged tribal men. From this point onwards, the story becomes practically inert.
This is essentially because the script doesn’t have anything that decent actors like Mohib or Samiya can capitalise on. It relies on half-baked back stories, which, firstly, are never-ending, and secondly, surface just when you are anticipating a twist. The child star, Saleha, is inarguably brilliant and can prove to be an asset for the industry.
What is saddening is that a film, entirely shot in northern areas as serene as Skardu, Hunza, Gilgit, Ghizer and Kallar Kahar, rarely managed to deliver visually-captivating scenes or, in film terms, ‘beauty shot’. .
How sloppy the film’s editing is can be seen by the number of shots in which Shehbaz is shown driving a jeep with an ‘I’m-content-with-this-pain’ look on his face. Whatever happened to the ‘less is more’ mantra?
Although, the film is primarily a visual medium, a good background score can often save the day by providing a new dimension to the story. All in all, Dukhtar fails to generate any form of emotional response from the audience, which is eventually going to reflect in local box-office collections.
Verdict: Dukhtar’s portrayal of child marriages in Pakistan is tedious, especially since it’s nothing new for local audiences. The director may have avoided making a Pashtoon woman do an item number, but the substitute she offers is not engaging at all.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2014.