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Entertainment Review: Dunki

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Rajkumar Hirani’s filmography so far has established him as a director with a unique point of view; his films deftly blend comedy and drama, and also sneak in a message without sounding preachy – Sanju being the exception. Which is why his latest Dunki is disappointing. What it says, or tries to, is odd—at the end of an exhausting 150-minute runtime, Hirani makes a claim for a visa-free world, because visa requirements just discriminate against the poor. He then equates the desperate refugees trying to escape from war-torn countries, with his characters who enter the UK illegally for economic reasons.

It is also strangely contradictory, that a song extols the watan, but Dunki’s characters want to go to the UK because there are no opportunities for them in India. People with little education, no marketable skills and an unwillingness to even learn English, would not find doors of opportunity opening anywhere. But begging, mopping floors, and driving taxis is fine when the earnings are in pounds.

Dunki is set in 1995, in Laltu, a town in Punjab, where Hardayal ‘Hardy’ Dhillon (Shah Rukh Khan), a soldier, arrives looking for the man who saved his life on the battlefield. His savior is dead, and his family in financial dire straits. Hardy learns that the sister, Manu (Taapsee Pannu) needs to go to England to earn money and get their home back from the moneylender. A shady visa agent has told her that if she learns a few wrestling moves, he could smuggle her into the UK with a sports team, so Hardy agrees to help. Her friends, Balli (Anil Grover) and Baggu (Vikram Kochhar), also want to migrate, despite having no grounds for eligibility. The visa agent who offers them weird shortcuts, vanishes after taking their money.

Learn English, suggests Hardy, and go as a student. The teacher, Geetu (Boman Irani), who does not even know what IELTS stands for, runs a Mind Your Language kind of class, when his impatient students are just interested in getting a visa. The noisiest is Sukhi (Vicky Kaushal in a scene-stealing cameo), who wants to go to London to rescue his beloved from an abusive marriage. Only Balli somehow aces the visa interview and flies off to London. When Sukhi fails the visa interview, he commits suicide, and a guilty Geetu tells the group of the donkey ‘dunki’ route to the UK, a tough and perilous journey.

Hirani expends a lot of time over the fraud agent, the English-learning and the unfunny visa interview farce, but not enough on the terrible trip, in which three of their fellow travellers are shot dead by soldiers in Iran– something that does not seem to affect Hardy and the others as much as an attempted rape of Manu.

When they reach London, they find that Balli, who had been sending them photos of his success, actually begs, posing as a live statue, and stays in a dump with other illegals, constantly in fear of being caught and deported. Back in 1978, Dev Anand’s Des Pardes had done a far better job of portraying the problems of illegal migrants in the UK. Hirani glosses over the real issues, just to be able to give Khan his big speech about loving his country, and why humans create boundaries when flamingoes (really!) freely migrate to India.

By this point, the film has already lost the plot, the faux patriotism and watan ki khushboo cuts no ice, when the film shows that Indians are crooked; that they would rather use their brains and resources on scams, than in acquiring skills and making an honest living. This is at odds with the current ‘Make in India’ mood of optimism and progress in the country. There may be a stray case like the family that froze to death trying to cross the border illegally into the US; the current crop of settlers in the west, is the educated and accomplished class, working in areas that may still be lagging in India. At a time when top global corporations have CEOs of Indian origin and the UK has an Indian prime minister, Dunki is out of date. (For instance, it is unbelievable today that close buddies, separated by distance, do not keep in touch over phone or mail for 25 years.)

However, because Hirani has been a good filmmaker with a string of successes behind him and he has Shah Rukh Khan on his team, with the hit Pathaan and Jawan released this year, Dunki is not a complete write off. There are scenes that Khan pulls off with his charm, and his stardom might even help drag the film over the box-office finishing line, but Dunki film is a misstep in the careers of the director and the star.

Dunki

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Vikram Kochhar, Anil Grover, Vicky Kaushal and others

In Cinemas

Deepa Gahlot
Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best-known entertainment journalists. A National Award-winning fim critic and author of several books on film and theatre. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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