The earnest “Dukhtar” reaches, but never grasps

A movie like “Dukhtar” has an inherent power to it. That power can be unlocked by a good director, but director Afia Nathaniel isn’t quite there. The setting makes for some haunting vistas, and truly powerful character moments are few and far between, but the movie is decent in its attempts. Like “JeruZalem,” “Dukhtar” aims high, but never reaches its ambitions.


The chiefs of two warring tribes, Daulat Khan (Asif Khan, “Zwee Da Badamala”) and Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), parley to quell their tensions. Tor Gul proposes a marriage between himself and Daulat’s daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref). Zainab’s mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz, “Jeewan Hathi”), having been forced into a marriage herself, flees the village with her daughter, Tor Gul’s men at their heels.

“Dukhtar” starts out with promise. One of the earliest shots, Allah Rakhi and her husband separated by a support beam, stands out as the best in the movie. But the creative direction ends there. Director Afia Nathaniel phones the rest of the movie in, using the same tired shot-counter shot structure for conversations. What she builds narratively she doesn’t reflect visually. As such, it can get boring. A lot of the time, the movies plays like something on Lifetime.

She spends time building a legacy of mothers and daughters, all wives or soon-to-be-wives in arranged marriages. There’s a thematic tension lurking here between Pakistan’s patriarchal culture and the women it victimizes, but Nathaniel chooses to ride on the movie’s implied power rather than exploring it further.

Pakistan as a country and its culture run deep in the narrative, but the characters that inhabit it are fairly one-dimensional. They have singular motivations and little beyond their struggle defining them. It feels like, without the movie, they wouldn’t exist. That being said, there are moments where “Dukhtar” reaches that quiet power it consistently aims for.

Specifically, a scene late in the movie between Allah Rakhi and her mother tugs at the heartstrings. It’s here that Nathaniel’s vision comes into focus: mothers and daughters, leaning on each other for strength, fight a long-held power structure. If only that vision had come through a little sooner.

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That’s not to say “Dukhtar” is worth passing. It’s not. The performances are mostly strong, and the story has enough momentum to carry its tight running time. Director Nathaniel phones in most of the direction, but reaches greatness at least once. What she wanted for the movie, and what the movie actually is, are two separate things. The strongest part of it all is the setting, and even that takes a backseat by the third act. It’s not well-built, but “Dukhtar” is an important glimpse into the struggle of breaking away from tradition.

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