BY PREETI THANDI
Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar is a gripping tale about a mother’s courage in saving her daughter from child marriage. Set in a visually stunning backdrop this chilling story was just as daring to make amid extreme weather, treacherous landscape and the risk of a fatwa. The film was shot in the disputed area between India and Pakistan where no film crew has ever set foot before. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2014 and features some of Pakistan’s best talent – actors Samiya Mumtaz and Mohib Mirza play the lead but were unable to attend the festival due to the current situation in Pakistan.
Dukhtar is a moving story about Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) a woman who decides to flee her home when her husband announces that he is giving away their 10-year-old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref) in marriage to an old tribal chief. “The universal theme of the film is about courage and what we do for the people we love. I have a daughter myself. I cannot imagine what would happen if I were forced into a situation where I had to marry off my seven year old daughter,” says Nathaniel. “The issue of child marriage is a problem in many countries and not just Pakistan. If nothing is done in the next decade almost 142 million girls would suffer the fate of child marriage and to me, this is unacceptable.”
As the mother and daughter are on the run in the starkly beautiful yet harsh mountainous terrain they manage to get a ride from Sohail (Mohib Mirza) a truck driver who doesn’t realize how this kind gesture would impact the rest of the journey. Nathaniel wanted to shoot in the tribal areas of Pakistan but couldn’t film there due to the on going war in that region. “To find the right location and mood for the surreal road trip journey of the mother was very important for me. I ended up finding the right places in the northern areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) but they were in a very remote corner of Pakistan,” explains Nathaniel who says there’s no good time for filming in Pakistan.
“You just have to go with the flow. The security conditions in these areas of filming were deteriorating rapidly. There were cases of bomb blasts, sectarian killings along this route and extreme weather conditions to factor in. We were going to film in some very desolate places in a region disputed between Pakistan and India where no other film crew had been given permission to film,” says Nathaniel who was concerned about the safety of her cast and crew of 50 people. “We somehow had to film the whole film in four weeks and make it back to Lahore before the snowfall blocked our only passage – the Karakorum Highway – a gruelling three day journey by road.”
Speaking about the challenges of filming, Nathaniel says, “At one point, our production almost stopped. We had just travelled a dangerous route for 14 hours at risk of landslides, and with hairpin bends at 8,200 feet above sea level. On arrival at this location we were told that a local maulvi would not allow any film crew to shoot, and he was prepared to give a fatwa against us the very next day. My crew said that they would go ahead and film if I wanted to do that, but for me the decision was very clear. I would not risk the lives of my cast and crew by having a maulvi give a fatwa against us.”
Mohib Mirza who is well known for his performances in films like Lamha and Josh and television drama serials like Shehr-e-Zaat and Aks describes his first experience of ‘shooting while traveling.’ Talking about his role as Sohail, the truck driver he says, “The first demand for the role was of an accent change. Since I had previously performed in roles of different ethnicities, it was fairly easy for me to deliver on it. Another challenging demand was to drive an old Bedford truck in high-altitude, mountainous terrain. There were times when I had to drive real fast and deliver dialogues too. Adding the freezing wind, it combined all the challenges together. As I look at it now, I am glad to have met them all. Pushing yourself to limits is like unlocking a new level within yourself.”
Mirza believes that “talent knows no boundaries” when asked if he would like to act in Bollywood like some of his other leading contemporary actors from Pakistan. “Being an actor, I definitely aspire to perform at bigger platforms for wider audiences, be it Bollywood or Hollywood. Given the geographical proximity, audience overlap and similarity of language, Bollywood is definitely part of my career vision.”
Excited to be getting a platform at TIFF for her film and Pakistani films in general Nathaniel who found it difficult to get funding for her film says, “We have been told that Dukhtar is the first Pakistani feature film by a Pakistani director to have made it to TIFF. We’re so deeply honoured. We had sold-out shows for our screenings at Toronto, well before Mary Kom. I couldn’t believe it. So that gives us a lot of hope and traction in the industry. We really want to bring the film to India as well. Let’s see how our distribution plans unfold.”