Dunki Review: Shah Rukh Khan shines once again in a film about illegal migration

Shah Rukh Khan's new film is enjoyable but gets preachy in parts

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Fri 22 Dec 2023, 12:37 PM

Last updated: Fri 22 Dec 2023, 11:27 PM

Director: Rajkummar Hirani

Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Boman Irani

Rating: 3 stars

A poster of William Shakespeare looms large in a tiny classroom in a fictional town in Punjab, where a pretentious English language coach is helping a group of hopefuls to be comfortable in the Queen’s lingo. The instructor tries hard but his students are unable to grasp the complexities of grammar or tenses, making a mess of vocabulary. "What difference does a language make? Communication of feelings is important," reasons a student as he struggles to string together a sentence in English. "Words are necessary to communicate and language is about words," explains the teacher. Shakespeare would have approved.

It’s a small touch but a deep take on the role of words, language and conversation in our lives. And it assumes even greater importance when you consider the role that these elements play in leading a person towards his or her destiny – in the case of this film’s characters, it’s a visa to London.

Rajkumar Hirani’s Dunki starring Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu and Boman Irani, has small moments that make big statements. It’s trademark Hirani – giving life lessons through simple gestures and throwaway dialogues (remember ‘Jaadu ki jhappi’ from Munnabhai MBBS?). Alas, in Dunki these are few and far between. Overall, the film, about a group of desperate migrants, is uneven, flat and simplistic, failing to take off in a way it could have.

Dunki is about the shocking ways in which people try to illegally migrate to the UK or any other developed western country. Called the ‘donkey route’, it involves unscrupulous agents, tough border controls, corrupt officials and lots of money. The film could not have been more timely, releasing as it does, in an era when illegal immigration has become an election hot potato in Europe. Just ask UK PM Rishi Sunak.

However, instead of an in-depth exploration of the mindset of ‘dunkers’, the circumstances that force them to undertake such hazardous trips, the legal, ethical and moral standpoint of nations in accepting or rejecting migrants, Dunki remains a facile albeit heartfelt, depiction of a serious issue.

The main characters are Hardy Singh (Shah Rukh Khan), a soldier who takes it upon himself to help a gang of motley fortune-seekers (Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal, Anil Grover and Vikram Kochhar) reach London. Each has their own reasons to get out of Punjab but all fail to get a visa, with language being the biggest barrier.

The first half is straight out of the Hirani playbook. Characters are introduced with their quirks and back stories, and the focus is on prepping to get to London, which gives plenty of room for comedy. Unfortunately, the gags fall flat. Even the aforementioned classroom scenes remind you of the famous British series Mind Your Language or even the more recent English Vinglish but without the wit and humour. And no, lame lavatory jokes don’t cut it.

The second half, when the leads embark on the ‘dunki’ journey, has a tonal shift so jarring that it seems we are watching two different films. But it’s here that the story actually comes alive. Despite the lack of realism, you feel involved and moved by their plight. It’s clear where Hirani and his co-writers’ (Abhijat Joshi and Kanika Dhillon) sympathies lie. A courtroom sequence where SRK makes a case for migrants is especially touching. But instead of continuing in the same vein, the screenplay injects forced and sudden humour. For instance, sham marriages for visa are a real problem but Dunki uses it for comedy in a way that just doesn’t seem convincing.

Conveying serious issues with a light touch is Hirani’s forte (civic corruption in Lage Raho Munnabhai, faulty education system in 3 Idiots or misuse of religion in PK), but in his earlier works, the balance between comedy and emotions felt seamless. Here, the impact of thought-provoking arguments for and against immigration get diluted because the director is in a hurry to solve the problem for the leads. As a viewer, you want to feel more involved and invested in the characters, you want to root for them but they themselves throw it away by cracking a silly one. There is nothing worse than an unfunny joke and Dunki has quite a few of those. It’s most evident towards the end when a bizarre Dubai sequence and a predictable (anti) climax featuring the death of a character make you sigh in exasperation. Just why?

Secondly, one fails to understand the penchant of Bollywood filmmakers to abuse a foreign country and its systems even while showcasing the desperation to be accepted by them. The UK and its colonial history are revisited, the greatness of India is re-emphasised, and officials and citizens of other nations are shown as bumbling fools. There is not even a mention about unemployment, poverty, violence or corruption, often the real reasons why people from developing nations jump on a boat. The hesitation to dig deeper into the root causes of migration robs the story of its honesty.

However, there are plenty of factors that work in Dunki. First and foremost is Shah Rukh Khan. The actor, after a testosterone-filled 2023, delights as a simple, kind-hearted do-gooder despite the awkward Punjabi accent and de-ageing. When he makes a humane (even if illogical) plea for a visa, you want to give one to him and his friends! He is nice, compassionate and gentle — a pleasant hero after all the animals we have encountered recently.

Taapsee Pannu strikes a surprise. Her spunk and smile linger and she makes for a worthy companion to Shah Rukh. Among the supporting cast, Boman Irani is a bit underwhelming while Vicky Kaushal shines in a cameo.

Overall, Dunki is a good watch although with the talent associated, it should have been a great watch. In a strife-torn world, a message of kindness and empathy is much-needed and that’s what Dunki is. Wish the execution was as good as the intention!