The world is a terribly unequal place, and cinema – often our escape from the harsh realities of the world – is no different. Representation in the arts is a tricky business, modulated as it is by the economics of what sells. What doesn’t sell gets sidelined, and entire groups of people are disadvantaged in the process. One such sidelined group is the women of the world.
This is common knowledge, of course. We know there’s a dearth of female characters in mainstream cinema, and those that are present are often moulded into producers’ and audience’s favourite stereotypes. There is also some connection between this dual dilemma and the fact that there aren’t enough women involved in the cinematic storytelling process.
In Pakistan, however, the coming months will see women leading the way to the revival of cinema. Zeba Bakhtiar is co-producing the testosterone-fuelled, Shaan-starring spy thriller Operation 021. Fizza Ali Meerza is producing Na Maloom Afraad, the story of three hapless men in Karachi, featuring that Mahwish Hayat item number that everyone is talking about.
Afia Nathaniel has helmed Dukhtar, which according to her, is about “the deep ties that bind us and the sacrifices made by women, especially mothers in our society.” With a Masters in Film Directing from Columbia University, Afia is well-equipped to steer the direction of cinema into a new direction, perhaps into uncharted waters. Dukhtar is made special by its singular focus on Pakistani women.
Instep catches up with Afia Nathaniel as she lays the final touches on Dukhtar to talk about her journey of making this road-trip thriller set in northern Pakistan.
“In 1999, I heard a story that refused to let go of me. It was the courageous story of a mother from the tribal areas, who ran away with her two young daughters. I didn’t want the story of this mother to be forgotten, so I fought for 10 years to make this film in Pakistan,” shared Afia about her inspiration for her first feature length-film.
Afia has several award-winning short films to her credit, many of which have been produced abroad, but making Dukhtar in Pakistan was important to her.
“I received a few offers to do this film in India with bigger stars,” she reveals, “but I wanted to give a platform to talented actors and crew within Pakistan itself and make this film with an authentic feel.”
Dukhtar takes us from Hunza, through Skardu, Gilgit, Ghizer and Kallar Kahar, all the way down to Lahore. The cast and crew of 50 people were on the road for two months braving the minus 13 degree Celsius temperature for the shoot. The chase scenes of the truck and jeeps were shot on the Karakoram Highway, one of the highest roads in the world. No special stunt artists were employed; the actors, drivers and crew did all the stunts themselves. The famous Khalid bhai of the industry (M. Khalid Ali in full) has signed on as Afia’s producing partner in Dukhtar, using his years of experience as line producer to make it all happen.
In the film, the mother and daughter (played by Samiya Mumtaz and a young Saleha Aziz respectively) meet the third main character, a cynical ex-mujahid truck driver (Mohib Mirza), who reluctantly agrees to take them on, and eventually helps them. The whole film unfolds as a journey of a search for a better life as the mother and child are being hunted down.
“The two lead characters happen to be a woman and a girl and it became a huge struggle trying to finance a film with strong female leads who are not required to take their clothes off,” said Afia.
We have a plentiful supply of those films brought over from across the border; masala films entertain a multitude and make millions. And then there’s the Lollywood brigade that attempts at the same formulas.
“Cinema, in all its diversity, has to have a mix of all kinds of films. There are all kinds of audiences. So why should we not try and push the boundaries of cinema instead of only churning out formula films? Those films cater to the male fantasy. My question is how many Pakistani films also cater to women? The answer is close to zero right now,” says Afia.
Not only does Dukhtar shift the focus from men on glorious missions to save the world to true stories of women doing the same on a smaller, more realistic scale, it also tackles a social malaise.
“Every year, nearly 14 million girls around the world are given away,” tells Afia, who has travelled the world during her work with the World YWCA, an international women’s non-profit organisation in Switzerland. “This was a reality which shocked me considerably, especially when I met young girls in Kenya who were housed in a special school after being rescued from child marriage. I felt deeply for the loss of their childhood and families. It became my responsibility to make Dukhtar because this doesn’t just happen in Pakistan but many other countries as well. In fact, if nothing is done in the next decade, almost 142 million girls would suffer the fate of child marriage.”
As with all films that showcase the failings of our society, Dukhtar has already received some backlash about the so-called ‘negative portrayal’ of the Pakhtun culture. But Afia is quick to clarify that her film is not a criticism of any one particular ethnicity or tribal affiliation, “just like Bol was not a criticism of only the Punjabis.” Understanding that there is heightened sensitivity in the Pakhtun community because of the ongoing Zarb-e-Azb, Afia stresses that the film places the spotlight on a strong and courageous Pakhtun woman who takes a stand. “Is a Pakhtun woman not worthy of being recognized for her courage? Are the women in our society who make plenty of sacrifices for their children – are they not worthy of being recognized in some way? Perhaps, society wishes to forget they exist but I don’t.”
Afia harnessed the memory of her heritage, the experience of personal visits, and the knowledge of her Pakhtun actors to ensure that her film is a faithful portrayal of the Pakhtun culture. Her maternal great-grandmother, who was from the tribal areas, inspired the mother’s character, Allah Rakhi. Trips to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa allowed Afia to learn about the daily lives of its women and children. And then of course, her Pakhtun actors Asif Khan sahab and Ajab Gul shared their personal experience with jirgas, which eased the difficulty of writing the key scene in the film.
One may feel that the film departs from factuality in the choice of Urdu as the main language for the script. Interestingly, however, Afia found that young Pakhtun women speak Urdu with a very good accent, which they pick up due to their fondness for Urdu TV dramas. With only a sprinkling of Pashto, the film is primarily in Urdu, which is apt considering its message will thus reach a much wider audience.
Dukhtar is scheduled for a mid-September release. Originally published in The News On Sunday.