‘Dukhtar’ – Pakistan’s First Feminist Film, Directed By A Woman, To Be Released In Oct.


A new film we are getting excited about here at GTHQ is ‘Dukhtar’ (translated: “daughter”), the story of a young Pakistani girl being targeted for child marriage, while her mother kidnaps her to help her escape the life she became bound to. From first-time director Afia Nathaniel who is from Lahore, Pakistan but is based out of New York City, this film is being hailed as a breakthrough, being Pakistan’s first “feminist film”.

It has become a critic favorite, and as Afia prepares for screenings around the US, there is a lot of buzz surrounding how this art house film is challenging some of the bigger blockbusters. The topic of child marriage is an interesting one to base this film around, as it is happening every day in many countries. In Pakistan it is estimated 21% of girls are married before the age of 18, which is what we see happening to the central character of Zainab in ‘Dukhtar’. The legal minimum age for marriage in Pakistan is 16 for girls and 18 for boys.

There are specific reasons why child marriage, especially the forced marriage of underage girls to much older men, is tied in with numerous social, cultural and religious traditions in Pakistan, as well as other regions where this is common. What we see in ‘Dukhtar’ is a phenomenally shot masterpiece, juxtaposed with difficult matter, portrayed by Samiya Mumtaz as a desperate mother, Saleha Aref as the young Zainab, and Mohib Mirza, the unlikely ally Sohail who helps them on their journey.

We had the chance to ask filmmaker Afia Nathaniel some questions about the story and her own journey as a filmmaker in a male-dominated industry as she gears up for screenings as press in the US. Although we have said it before numerous times about the importance of supporting female-driven films and those helmed by female filmmakers, we are emphasizing it again. If we can use our purchasing power to show industry executives and critics that these kind of stories are important to us, we become part of the solution.



Tell us a bit about your background growing up and how you became a filmmaker?

In Pakistan I used to be a nerdy computer scientist. And before that a mathematician. However, I loved to write and tell stories. So after finishing my BSc in Computer Science I shifted tracks completely and went into advertising. That’s the nearest thing to filmmaking in Pakistan since we don’t really have a film industry to train into or even proper film schools. After that I worked in a non-profit in Switzerland where I started photography as a hobby and trained myself to write screenplays.

It was an intensely liberating time of my life. That gave me the courage to start applying for film schools. Then in early 2001, I got a phone call which changed my life. It was the Chair of the Film Division of Columbia University offering me a two year Dean’s Fellowship to do an MFA in Film Directing. That was the greatest day of my life. I packed my bags and bought a one way ticket to New York and absolutely loved being a filmmaker. And since then, New York has been home to me.

How did the story of ‘Dukhtar’ come about?

Very organically. I used to work in a women’s non-profit where I heard a story which refused to leave me. It was the story of a mother from the tribal region of Pakistan who kidnaps her two young girls and makes a run for the road to find a better future for them. This image remained stuck in my mind.

I needed to explore her character in a film. I needed to explore her crazy journey in the face of an impossible situation. This impossible situation was that the mother finds out that her ten year old daughter has been given away in a child marriage to settle a blood feud between their tribes. But she decides to not let that happen. She risks everything and runs away with her daughter.

The real story was very different but my fictional account was inspired by the original mother’s courage. And since I myself come from a very strong matriarchal family it was important for me to explore this in cinema.


Your film is being hailed as a feminist film making history in the fledgling Pakistani film industry. What does this mean to you as the creator of ‘Dukhtar’?

‘Dukhtar’ has created history for the Pakistani film industry in many ways. First it places Pakistani arthouse cinema squarely on the map after its World Premiere in Toronto. We were told that no other Pakistani feature film with a Pakistani director and an all Pakistani cast and crew had ever been in Official Selection before in the forty-year history of TIFF. So that was a great honor for us.

The second surprise was the success of the film in Pakistan itself. It did away with the allegations that films by women directors and featuring women protagonists don’t do well. We proved the naysayers wrong. For four weeks straight, ‘Dukhtar’ stood tall against major Bollywood and Hollywood and local film released. Also, we set a new opening box office record for a local arthouse feature film by a female filmmaker featuring female protagonists!

This year’s arthouse films by male filmmakers haven’t been able to break ‘Dukhtar’s record. So it’s good news. It’s good news for filmmakers making different kinds of films. It’s also good news for investors. What this tells us is that there is an audience hungry for less formulaic films, more realism and rooted in their own cultural sensibilities rather than one borrowed from Bollywood or Hollywood.

The third fun and surprising thing was that ‘Dukhtar’ went on to become Pakistan’s Official Selection for the 87th Academy Awards. The response from audiences has been overwhelming and heart-warming everywhere we go. We saw the same kind of response in several other major festivals: Busan, Sao Paolo, BFI London, Stockholm, Dubai, Palm Springs, Goa, Bengaluru to name a few. We’ve won several awards on the way and will begin our North American release this fall. There are huge pockets of diaspora in North America and we’ve been flooded with Facebook messages to play the film here.

It was a real marvel for us to go to country after country and witness sold out screenings with long rush lines. The film’s universal theme has really been embraced so warmly and we are truly grateful to all our fans out there.

You say it took ten years from inception to completion, and along the way you had a daughter of your own. How did this intensify your reason for making the film?

When I look at my daughter, I see the film’s story reflected through her eyes. And if I were Allah Rakhi, I would not hesitate to do what she did.

It’s funny how my daughter actually helped me finesse the ending of the film. One day, I was editing the ending scene of the film and I didn’t realize that my daughter stood behind me watching the ending sequence. It was a tragic ending. So my little one asked me, “What happens to DUKHTAR at the end?” It made me think hard about what I really wanted to say at the end. I realized that while I wanted to portray the harsh truth at the end I also wanted to leave them with some hope. Reality is bittersweet, and I could finally justify the ending to my dukhtar (daughter).

In the film Zainab is promised to an elderly warlord in a child marriage transaction. How common is this today in Pakistan?

Child marriage in Pakistan is prevalent in some parts of the country. Sometimes it is used to settle disputes between families or tribes or individuals. It comes down to the notion of girls and women being used as a commodity or property. Child marriage exists in many other parts of the world and for different reasons but in Pakistan it’s more of a transaction oriented cultural norm. And laws against such things aren’t easy to enforce so it comes down to the question of what can the average person do about it.

Child marriage is still happening across the world every day. How do you want the audience to react to this issue?

Every year nearly 15 million girls are given away as child brides. So take action! There are several non-profits and alliances working to address this issue. e.g. Girls Not Brides, the World YWCA, Girl Up. You can support their important work through active advocacy or programmatic support.


The idea of a young girl being used in a transaction like an object is indicative that women are not considered equal to men. What should the less be for us as viewers?

My idea for breaking the silence on this issue in Pakistan was to empower local audiences to help effect change on this issue. We cannot bring change unless cultural norms like these are openly questioned. Child marriage used to be a very buried issue in the country before the film came out. Our film really shook a lot of people to the core. Cinema is a wonderful medium for advocacy because it can convey a message in a subtle way that no amount of lecturing will ever achieve. Recently, anti-child marriage laws were strengthened and punishments made more serious for those facilitating child marriage in Pakistan.

I also heard this story just a few days ago. In Punjab, there was a wedding hall administrator who found out that the marriage ceremony being performed on his premises involved a young girl. He immediately had the wedding stopped. So when I hear stories like these I am very hopeful that positive change will emerge and percolate. Audiences are the real catalyst for change.

Tell us about filming in the mountainous areas of Pakistan, because almost every shot is incredibly epic and beautiful, which is strangely contrasted with the agony of the story.

To me the film is also a tragic love story – a love that can never be full realized between the runaway mother and the truck driver. So the surreal landscape and the impossible situation they are in makes for compelling cinema especially since the landscape is a character in the film. That’s how I wanted to shoot the film. The landscape is the only character in the film that bears silent testimony to their story, their joys and sorrows, their agonies and their ecstasies. And it will be the only thing remaining long after they have gone. That’s why the film is dedicated both to my mother and motherland at the end.


You are a first-time female director working with an all-male crew, how was that experience and did you come up against any barriers?

I have to say that I was blessed with a great crew. My producer Khalid Ali is terrific and understood my vision for the film as did my co-producer, Nomi and DP, Armughan. They moved heaven and earth to give me the creative freedom to make the film as I wanted. People are often amazed to hear that about Pakistan.

We were working in pretty tough terrain in what is the disputed region between India and Pakistan. We were on the Pakistani side of this zone which was experiencing sectarian tensions and below freezing temperatures in the middle of desolate region so just the sheer physical nature of the shoot was pretty intense. We were on the road for two months in these conditions and being the only female filmmaker was extremely lonely at times. I couldn’t find another female crew who could join us under these conditions and for such a long time.

There are some cultural barriers to overcome if you’re a woman but once you’re in the middle of such an intense shoot you have less time to ponder on the disadvantages of your gender and more time on getting the job done. So my crew knew I was the boss and the respect was earned over time. They had never worked with such a disciplined director before, they told me! We were on the road for two months and my crew also told me I had lasted in a way where most male directors in Pakistan would have folded and gone home.

Our industry is filled with stories of productions left hanging because the male director couldn’t get the job done on time and within budget. However, it is the female directors who are scrutinized heavily in the industry and bear the brunt of criticism. Male directors are excused for everything – from attitude problems, to plain bad storytelling to just having a bad day. The hypocrisy exists at that level and the patriarchal order becomes really apparent where the industry tends to focus only on the achievements of male filmmakers.


If you look at the achievements of Pakistani female directors, they far outstrip those of their male colleagues including a win of Pakistan’s first Oscar by a female director. So a real barrier exists in the film industry of Pakistan where the talent of women directors is judged harshly and differently from those of male directors, and mostly disregarded or buried in any ongoing dialogue about the industry itself.

While my set is a great place to be a female director, the Pakistani industry itself is less than welcoming with their boys club mentality. Even Hollywood has a massive problem in this regard. We really have a long way to go.

The film has been screened across the world, been nominated for a handful of awards, officially selected as Pakistan’s entry for the 87th Academy Awards, and you were also awarded Best Director at South Asian International Film Festival. Given the barriers female directors in Hollywood are facing, how important are these accolades to you?

These are great validations that female directors are out there. However, it doesn’t necessarily translate into work for us in Hollywood primarily because I am not just a female writer-director but a brown female writer-director who works in foreign language. As minority female filmmakers, we are considered outsiders to the industry and more often than not since our stories have female protagonists, the battle to fight for those films to be made becomes a greater challenge in Hollywood itself.

What is next for you?

My next feature film is a fantasy/science fiction. It’s a mind-bending narrative and a wild mash-up of genres. So look out for it.

Finally, what makes you a powerful woman?

Maybe because I know how to dig in my heels and do what needs to be done to tell the story the way I want to.


DUKHTAR will be released in NYC October 9, Los Angeles October 16, and other cities to follow. To request a screening and find out more information about director Afia Nathaniel and the film, visit the official website, follow updates on Twitter, and ‘like’ the Facebook page.




  1. A new film we are getting excited about here at GTHQ is ‘Dukhtar’ (translated: “daughter”), the story of a young Pakistani girl being targeted for child marriage, while her mother kidnaps her to help her escape the life


  2. nice movie i watched is last night

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