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Dukhtar opens with a girl moving over water, her long hair sifted by the wind, facing away. The thick, weaving music indicates that this is some kind of dream, some long and impossible journey — and then the film cuts to silence, to the same girl lying still on a mattress, going nowhere at all.
Despite what follows, Dukhtar, directed by Afia Nathaniel, never changes from dream to nightmare. Instead, it inhabits a heightened, brilliantly colorful version of what lies between; call it reality. The daughter in question (dukhtar means “daughter” in Urdu) is ten-year-old Zainab (Saleha Aref, moving with lightness and soft electricity), who is promised in marriage by her father to a much older man. Zainab is young enough that she wets herself out of fear and can entertain herself with what she finds on the ground. She is a child, and her mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz, intelligent and balletically expressive), knowing it, flees.
Zainab and Allah Rakhi head for Punjab, pursued by men from home who aim to kill them, and helped by a kind, nervous truck driver (Mohib Mirza) whom they meet on the highway. In the face of imminent violence, the love between Zainab and her mother proves sustaining; theirs is the rare love story in which men are superfluous and sex is a horror, though both haunt and drive the plotline.
Dukhtar is an issues film with the twisted, heart-pounding feel of a road-trip thriller, but Nathaniel based her script on a true story, and there’s a low-key quality to the conversations that feels real, intimate, and all the more urgent for it.
Directed by Afia Nathaniel
Distributed by Dukhtar Productions LLC
Opens October 9, Cinema Village