The “insult” of the women fleeing can only be answered with their blood, as well as the blood of anyone who helped them.
Zainab (Saleha Aref) lives happily with her family in a remote Pakistani village in the Punjab. We don’t know her exact age, but she’s young enough to play with dolls and believe that babies are formed when a boy and a girl look at each other. Her father’s family is entangled in some dispute with a tribal leader (we are told that 17 men are already dead because of it), but that’s men’s business and doesn’t concern her—until her father, Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), agrees to settle the dispute by marrying her off to the tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), who must be several times her age and is known as a hard man.
For the men involved, this seems like a fair arrangement; women have no rights anyway and forced child marriages are common, so if this one can stop the killing, so much the better. Zainab’s mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), has a different opinion. A child bride herself, she says her life stopped the day she was married: She hasn’t seen her mother since her wedding day, and lives as a virtual prisoner in her husband’s home. She’s not willing to abandon her daughter (“dukhtar” in Urdu) to such a fate, so she and Zainab make a run for it. They’re amazingly unprepared for such a journey—Allah Rakhi doesn’t even know the layout of their small village, and they have no access to modern technology like cell phones or automobiles—but they manage to stow away on a bus headed south.
The bus driver, Sohail (Mohib Mirza), is annoyed when he discovers them, and then frightened when he realizes that if Tor Gul and his henchmen find the women in his truck, they’ll kill him. It’s a crime of honor, after all, and the “insult” of the women fleeing can only be answered with their blood, as well as the blood of anyone who helped them (several such executions take place off screen over the course of the film). Allah Rakhi’s ultimate goal is Lahore, where her mother (Samina Ahmed) lives, but her first priority is just to stay alive and avoid capture. Gradually, Sohail reveals more of his own background (he’s an orphan, a widower, and a former mujahid), and becomes sympathetic to the plight of the two women.
Dukhtar is in part a social problems film, but it’s much more, as well: a road movie, a thriller, and a romance, as well as a tribute to the visual beauty of the Hunza Valley where the film was shot (which some believe was the inspiration for the mythical valley of Shangri-la in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon). The harshness of women’s lives in this region is not downplayed, but director/screenwriter Alfia Nathaniel also celebrates the closeness of the mother-daughter bond and the vibrancy of local folk culture, from the magnificent fabrics worn by the female characters, to the elaborate decorations on Sohail’s bus. Dukhtar was Pakistan’s submission for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Oscar, and was shown at a number of international film festivals, including the London Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Dukhtar is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include the film’s trailer and an informational commentary by Nathaniel, who provides information about the production process (for instance, for political and security reasons, they couldn’t film at some locations they had planned on), as well as commenting on her artistic choices. The Blu-ray transfer does full justice to Armughan Hassan and Najaf Bilgrami’s stunning cinematography and the atmospheric soundtrack by Sahir Alli Bagga and Peter Nashel. | Sarah Boslaugh