‘Dunki’ movie review: Shah Rukh Khan and Rajkumar Hirani deliver a drama that delights and drags in equal measure

In ‘Dunki,’ Rajkumar Hirani’s first and long-awaited collaboration with Shah Rukh Khan, the purpose and social concern is laudable but the storytelling feels facile and laboured after a point

December 21, 2023 05:46 pm | Updated December 22, 2023 04:44 pm IST

Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Dunki’

Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Dunki’

Early in Dunki, a simplistic but heartwarming take on the poor illegal immigrants from Punjab who make dangerous journeys in a desperate search for greener pastures, a set of hopefuls find a way to crack the English test. They memorise a paragraph by rote and decide to parrot it to the examiners by just changing the name of the topic.

Inadvertently, the long scene with diminishing returns becomes a metaphor for the sameness that surrounds Rajkumar Hirani’s storytelling. Over the years, he has engaged the audience with almost the same story structure, but has always managed to imbue it with a beating heart and a smiling face.

In Dunki, Hirani’s first and long-awaited collaboration with Shah Rukh Khan, the purpose and social concern is again laudable, but the storytelling feels facile and laboured after a point, largely because Hirani doesn’t want to test newer ways to put his point across. The spontaneity that we associate with his work is sadly missing.

Set in a small town in Punjab, Dunki goes into flashback to tell the tale of four characters with modest means who want to immigrate to London to get over their difficulties in life. When they are about to give up, Hardy (Shah Rukh), an ex-armyman, comes into their lives to make their dream a reality by taking a circuitous, illegal route. Along the way, he develops a soft corner for Manu (Taapsee Pannu) only to realise that her wish to cross over to a foreign land is stronger than her love for the man who gave her the belief.

Dunki (Hindi)
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Vikram Kochhar, Anil Grover, Vicky Kaushal, Boman Irani
Run-time: 161 minutes
Storyline: Hardy and his posse of friends brave perilous odds to enter England via an illegal backdoor route

The theme of illegal immigration may be relatively new for the Hindi film industry, but it has been tackled in Punjabi films and the news pages are full of first-hand accounts of the perilous journeys that the so-called ‘donkeys’ make. So when the film presents the challenges as a novelty, it doesn’t come as a surprise. They feel tepid in picturisation and we keep looking for a little more nuance and a little more poignancy. The feeling becomes stronger when the end credits show some facts and figures superimposed on some heart-rending images of illegal immigrants.

Also Read | ‘Pathaan’ movie review: Shah Rukh Khan shines in this spectacle sans secrets 

Hirani always puts emotional logic ahead of conventional logic and uses situational humour to great effect. Here, he does it again, but the results are not as consistently riveting and charismatic as they have been in the past. The emotional swell does overwhelm you two or three times, but the seamless unpredictability of the narrative that has been the hallmark of Hirani and Abhijat Joshi’s writing is missing here. More importantly, in the light-hearted first half, the jokes around English and Englishmen start feeling repetitive. And, some, like one around the national anthem, don’t land properly. Perhaps, Hirani has chosen England over the the US and Canada because he could use the colonial connection, but in the present scenario the illegal immigration to the US and Canada is more newsworthy and relatable.

A still from ‘Dunki’

A still from ‘Dunki’

Having said that, Hirani’s focus on how the policies on immigration are stacked against the poor strikes a chord, and his knack for incorporating social commentary into the screenplay is very much noticeable. The comment on the trousers-wearing mother of one of the candidates opens a window into the deep-seated patriarchy in mofussil India where the son feels embarrassed by the fact that his mother works as a security guard.

Once the dust settles down, one could pretty much guess where the film is headed. The narrative sags in the middle overs. Things look up in the second half when the film finally moves from the comic set pieces, most of which are part of the trailer, to convey the larger message behind illegal migration. But after a couple of powerful scenes, it feels like the writers are straining to take the film to a fitting conclusion. The musical tapestry, particularly the combination of Javed Akhtar and Sonu Nigam in ‘Nikle The Kabhi Hum Ghar Se’ and Varun Grover and Javed Ali’s chemistry in ‘Chal Ve Vatna’, gives goosebumps.

Shah Rukh surrenders himself to Hirani’s universe and the way he evocatively puts nation over asylum in a courtroom sequence, makes a strong socio-political statement and is one of the highlights of the film. The problem is that the love story between Hardy and Manu doesn’t create much magic. Taapsee fails to cast the spell that the story requires for the boy to wait for her for 25 years. The supporting cast is solid, particularly Vicky Kaushal, who reprises a staple character in Hirani’s universe, earlier essayed by Jimmy Shergil and Ali Fazal in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. and 3 Idiots respectively. Vikram Kocchar and Anil Grover are efficient but Boman Irani isn’t tested much.

Overall, not the best of Hirani, but Dunki has just about enough to make you chuckle and churn.

Dunki is currently running in theatres

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