Dunki review: Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee try too hard in a dated film
Dunki (Hindi)(2.5 / 5)
In the opening scene of Rajkumar Hirani’s Dunki, a middle-aged Mannu (Taapsee Pannu – her name leads the title cards) hoodwinks staff at a London hospital to escape along with her IV line. She goes straight to her lawyer, demanding why he hasn’t been able to arrange for her trip to India. Then, we learn of her trip to England twenty-five years ago. Sandwiched between these two trips is Dunki’s heartbeat, going dhak-dhak-dhak with old-fashioned Bollywood tropes.
Shah Rukh Khan has had a phenomenal year with Pathaan and Jawan. Interestingly, in Dunki too, he plays a patriot, a fouji who will neither let his country nor the love of his life down. Just as SRK redefined romance for a generation, he appears to be repackaging nationalism in an industry that has oversold it these past few years. A nationalism lite that used to be the flavour of our cinema for decades before it was discarded for a more muscular version.
If Rizwan in My Name is Khan (2010) had to prove being Muslim didn’t mean he’s a terrorist, Hardy of Dunki has to establish that illegal immigrants are not a threat to Western society. It’s 1995, and in Mannu’s Punjabi village, homes proudly advertise a son or daughter in London by displaying a model aircraft on their terrace. Mannu, Buggu (Vikram Kochchar), and Balli (Anil Grover) desperately want to own that dream. Sukhi (an earnest Vicky Kaushal), their classmate at an IELTS course, has a more pressing reason – his ex-girlfriend is in an abusive marriage in London and needs rescuing. Hardy arrives at the village to meet someone and ends up staying to help the trio.
The screenplay (Hirani, Abhijat Joshi, Kanika Dhillon) meanders through the trials and tribulations of trying to master the English language with Boman Irani as the tutor. The comedy is decidedly dated and reminiscent of Mind Your Language, a Seventies British sitcom that would probably be cancelled on Twitter if it were to premiere today. Still, the actors sell the jokes with their performances – the intercut scenes at the IELTS exam are laugh-out-loud funny, and Hardy’s test at least has more to it than just linguistic humour as the lines take on a bittersweet meaning towards the end.
When all their attempts fail to get them to London, the characters are faced with a daunting prospect. They must take the dunki route and reach England illegally. It’s a tough and dangerous journey – through contrasts of small, enclosed spaces and vast, arid land – but brave it they must.
The film adopts a semi-serious tone in telling this story; bullets are fired and Hardy flexes his muscles, but the underlying emotion driving it all is the pyaar between Hardy and Mannu. In filmy style, he saves her every time there’s danger. We get an action scene where without speaking a word, the fouji in Hardy rises to the occasion and kills the enemy with precision, but we go back to the love story because, for Hardy, Mannu’s happiness is all he wants. This means that we never really feel the sense of danger that the characters are in, even if the camera seeks to whip up our emotions by repeatedly focusing on a small box of mitti that someone brought from their homeland. When we see dirt smeared on the faces of the characters, it looks like makeup (which it is), and not the grime of having spent gruelling days and nights in unhygienic conditions.
The chemistry between Taapsee and SRK, unfortunately, doesn’t work. There are 22 years between them, time enough for another Mannu to be born and raised, and it shows. Shah Rukh’s de-aged and elderly versions look unconvincing, even if the actor throws himself at the role with heart. Taapsee is at ease as the bindass Mannu, but together, it’s hard to buy them as a couple. In fact, the most romantic shot in the film is of them apart – Mannu dressed as a living statue while a plane flies overhead. Hardy has left, she’s left behind and has turned to stone…metaphorically anyway. The songs are fun to watch, the background score though tries too hard to play on our sentiments, becoming maudlin in parts.
The British people in the film are caricatures used for lazy laughs. Hardy’s impassioned speech on colonialism, immigrants, and borders may work purely on emotional appeal but is too simplistic for it to be a real argument. Hirani’s strength in films like 3 Idiots (2009) and PK (2014) was to pick an issue and package it in an entertaining way with likeable characters. Dunki attempts to tread the same path, but the writing struggles to find its stride, especially in the second half. The film does not want to lose any Bollywood shine in telling the story of illegal immigrants, so if a scene offers a realistic glimpse of the pathetic conditions in which they live, the screenplay overcompensates with loud comedy. The sham wedding between Mannu and a British man, for instance, seems anachronistic in its conception and execution.
Dunki is neither hard-hitting nor uproariously entertaining. It’s a passable film that largely rides on the performances of its cast, and more’s the pity.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.
Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.