42. Dukhtar, directed by Afia Nathaniel

42. Dukhtar, directed by Afia Nathaniel

A Mother’s Love

By Rose Marel

For Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), her most valued possession is her daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref). In fact she is one of her only possessions, living in a culture that reduces a woman to ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ rather than recognising her as an autonomous human. Ten-year old Zainab is Allah Rakhi’s life-force: an extension of herself, but also an expansion, by enriching her life with more humour, happiness and innocence.

Technological developments like mobile phones and tape recorders may infiltrate Pakistani life, but their modern-day world is just as deeply patriarchal as bygone generations. Nathaniel (who also wrote the script) establishes this reality by way of explanatory dialogue, particularly in the first few scenes. Zainab and her best friend chirp naively about ownership, marriage and children, albeit through a child’s filter. Lines like, “You get a house only after marriage”, inform the audience of cultural customs that perpetuate gender imbalance, although the girls don’t yet know why. They just know that it’s the way it goes. Laced with this is the poignant innocence with which they look at their fates – an arranged marriage with an old man simply equates to a house, to children, to their future. They lack both the foresight and insight into the specifics of this future, and the long-last impact this can leave upon a young woman (or child).

But Allah Rakhi knows. Played with a beautiful intensity by Mumtaz, we see the pain set into her hard stare and in the dreams she continues to have, of a life that encourages freedom. We see, through her eyes, the pain of generations of women who have no choice but to unknowingly succumb to the way of life laid down for them, sacrificing themselves as pawns in a strategic and complicated history of alliance and warfare. Continuing to contribute to this culture are the women themselves: mothers who submit their daughters to the repeated loop of history, offering the same half-truths as they once received themselves. Rakhi watches her child as if watching a younger version of herself, and when her husband arranges for Zainab to be married to the brutal and powerful tribal leader Tor Gull (a man looking to be at least sixty), Rakhi bravely breaks the cycle, kidnapping her own daughter in a desperate escape.

From there, in panicky, rapid cuts, we see the desperation with which Rakhi has acted. It isn’t so much ill-planned as not-planned-at-all, driven by a fierce love, the madness of maternal protectionism. The men begin a merciless hunt for the females, intensified by their claims of ownership (“She was ours!”). Nathaniel establishes a tense cross-country cat and mouse atmosphere, traversing the picturesque desert regions with an eye for visual beauty, despite the harsh nature of their journey. There’s one breathtaking moment where mother and daughter lie curled together, as if Zainab is melting back into the womb, and a reluctant guide sits on the other side of a charred fire, encircled by rising mountains that fade into the wispy, dawn sky.

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Colour is also effectively played with. The young child’s vibrant head scarves and her mother’s garments contrast the dark, monochromatic attire of the men. Zainab, in particular, represents that vigour and boldness for life, unsullied by a world of prejudice and inequality. Their guide too, plays an important role, as he’s roped into their fugitive run, reaching the point of betrayal or no-return, and the clothes he wears lighten throughout the film, as he begins to invest in their escape.

Overall, it’s an affecting film, pulling us emotionally into the story and aligning us with the complicated and unfair life of modern Pakistani women. It’s full of well-considered, beautiful images, continuously experimenting with light and shadow, and highlighting the landscape.

This is Allah Rakhi’s story, but also her mother’s, and her daughter’s, and all the women and girls that form the chain around her. Each is each other’s story. Entwined together as the protagonist – mother changes the future of her child – rippling the reflection of her own life so that it settles into a new image, one all of its own. More than that, it’s a story of empowerment; of finding courage, and the strength to discover your own voice, especially when you live in a world that is defined by generations of silence. It’s an allegory for each woman’s journey to recognise that she even has a voice; to realise her own importance, that she’s more than a commodity, or a mother, or a daughter, or a wife, and that she deserves a present and a future untouched by the hands of others.

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