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'Dunki' movie review: Done!

Updated on: 22 December,2023 10:22 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

SRK 3.0, on his part, cracking it in 2023, is the most competent we’ve seen him on screen, ever—altogether shorn of his usual mannerisms and tics (this grimace, that laughter) we’ve known and many have loved him for decades

'Dunki' movie review: Done!

Dunki review

Movie: Dunki 
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Actors: Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu 
Rating: 3/5

Was feeling unwell. Missed the first day, first show of this film. Watched it later at night. It’s impossible to remain immune to public opinion on pictures. Learnt that many had felt let down by the movie, before I stepped into the theatre. This helped me sufficiently lower my expectations.

Which is the best way to watch a film—any film, but more so, Dunki. It is directed by Rajkumar Hirani—rarest in the Indian mainstream to have earned as much respect as his movies have made money.

Over 20 years, he has directed five films. Starting with Munnabhai MBBS (2003), wherein the lead here, Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), was the original choice there.

All of Hirani’s films since have been kinda iconic in their own right—with enough in common between them for you to roughly know what’s here, already. For one, there will be actor Boman Irani, playing a particularly costumed part, cracking a peculiar accent.

There could also be a young actor, otherwise seen in main roles, playing an extended cameo, like, say, Sushant Singh Rajput in PK (2014).

It’s Vicky Kaushal on board this carefully picked ensemble cast that comprises a bunch of blokes from a small town in Punjab, learning English, somehow, to migrate to the promised land, i.e., “Inglaind”, in their case.

This could’ve been the annual X’mas, Aamir Khan release. It stars SRK, opposite Taapsee Pannu, who has as much a role to die for. And she’s as good as it gets.

SRK 3.0, on his part, cracking it in 2023, is the most competent we’ve seen him on screen, ever—altogether shorn of his usual mannerisms and tics (this grimace, that laughter) we’ve known and many have loved him for decades.

It’s almost as if he graduated from another acting school, while on hiatus (for four years) from the big screen. And he looks his best, when his character ages to his actual self, that is, pushing 60.

Felt that for Jawan as well. My expectations with that blast-fest blockbuster was lower for different reasons. It was possibly as many notches over anything Atlee had directed before, as Dunki is below Hirani’s par. Have to say, this is still better than Sanju (2018).

In the sense of its scope and scale, to begin with. The film encompasses several lives and ambitions, with scenes after scenes—either taking the story forward, or getting deeper into characters.

All of it in the interest of sunny entertainment, as the family drama breathlessly alternates between romance, song, action, with comedy at the base, also shining a light on NRIs (non-resident Indians), who have been SRK’s own core audience-base for long.

There is just so much going on that I felt like viewing Dunki the second time on might help digest this overboiled egg better. But there is also so much that doesn’t land—from jokes to the general jostling—that watching it again, so soon, might be a bit much. Even as you’re better off, either way, wholly suspending disbelief and cynicism, simultaneously.

At the centre, hence, is almost a mythical sorta do-gooder (SRK), blessed with immeasurable kindness, determined to take a bunch of Punjabis overseas, come what may. How fatally desperate are these pind peeps to leave India for a better life? It’s not easy to place this motivation.

I had to summon my own memory from the ’90s, when ‘settling abroad’ was such a heavenly thing for Indians, in general. It probably still is. Especially in the lower classes. The poorest are inevitably best protected in the First World. We’re placed in the mid ’90s. The chosen destination is the UK. Visas are impossible.

The only way to fly away is traversing on foot through plains and valleys, mountains and seas. The route is called Dunki, corruption for donkey (beast of burden), where the title comes from.

I first read about this phenomenon around 2020, in the context of the United States, actually—where Indians make for the fifth largest number of illegal immigrants, entering through its south-western border, if they survive. Most of them are from Punjab/Haryana.

Dunki is therefore a film on immigration at a time in history, when world politics is strongly centred on xenophobia and closing borders.

Hirani’s constant co-writer, Abhijat Joshi, is a professor of English at a university in the US. It’s a subject he would be acquainted with enough to reflect on it with fair depth. Making this a film with strong legs to stand on—no matter what you feel about how it walks the talk.

It retains the hallmark of the Hirani-Joshi partnership—their sugarcoating of bitter pills, through characters/performances, situational comedy, and idealism.

Lensing the most tragic issues with the bearable lightness of being amusing, all through. Whether that be on India’s oppressive education system (3 Idiots), drug abuse (Sanju), to greed or superstitions (PK, Lage Raho Munna Bhai). You sense Dunki trying too hard to fit into the funky template. What you can’t deny is the originality of its idea, while most blockbusters of 2023, the post-pandemic year that audiences truly re-embraced the theatres, have chiefly been regurgitative action set-pieces.

Given expectations, I was also looking out for the Hirani-Joshi gentle gyans on life—’jaadu ki jhappi’ types. Liked that bit where, if you wanna break bad news to someone, fake the worst possible news first, so the bad feels not so terrible, after all!

The only news for me to break here is stepping out of the cinema, I was feeling a tad bit better. That’s enough, frankly. Rest is just a lotta English!

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