Early in Dukhtar (“Daughter“), a Pakistani drama screening at this year’s Chicago South Asian Film Festival, writer-director Afia Nathaniel presents a striking image of a woman preparing dinner for her husband in their small, mountainside home. A post in the middle of the home’s single room divides the wide-screen frame in half; the wife, Allah Rakhi, sits on the left side in darkness while the husband, Tor Gul, sits on the right side in light. Neither looks at the other—until Allah Rakhi crosses the frame, you might think that the home has two rooms. This is a clever way of illustrating the division between these two characters, as well as divisions between men and women in traditional Pakistani society. The moment isn’t subtle, but like much in Dukhtar it gains from a certain elemental power. With its stark imagery and characterizations, the film often feels like a folktale, even though it takes place in the present and addresses ongoing social concerns.
Tor Gul and Allah Rakhi belong to a tribe that lives according to archaic customs. When the movie begins, the tribe has been engaged for some time in a blood feud with a neighboring clan that has claimed the lives of multiple people on each side. Tor Gul, who presides over his tribe, meets with his counterpart in hope of ending the conflict. The other leader proposes that he marry the couple’s’s daughter, ten-year-old Zainab, to create a new bond between the tribes, and vows more bloodshed if the marriage doesn’t take place. Tor Gul reluctantly accepts, but after Allah Rakhi learns of the arrangement, she and the girl flee their isolated community in search of a safe refuge.
What follows is a suspenseful chase that doubles as a travelogue of rural Pakistan. Zainab and her mother (whose name means “God protects”) cross the country while men from both tribes follow in hot pursuit. Along the way these women hide in a truck, and the driver, Sohail, becomes their protector, taking them to another remote area where they can hide. As Sohail and Allah Rakhi come to trust each other, they open up about their pasts: Allah Rakhi, once a child bride herself, has been unable to see her own mother (let alone leave her community) since she married, whereas Sohail once participated in a terrorist cell before he became disillusioned with its violence. In Zainab the two characters see the potential for a better future; in caring for the little girl, they nurture one’s hopes for a safer Pakistan. v