Dubai: Illegal immigration and unauthorised cross-border migrant crossings are grim issues, but trust director Rajkumar Hirani to humanize them with an emotionally engaging tale like ‘Dunki.’ He gives a face and voice to all those all-or-nothing desperate souls who would go to any lengths for a better life in a foreign land without reducing it to didactic, statistic-driven drivel.
‘Dunki’ opens with a bunch of twenty-somethings—Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal, Vikram Kochhar, and Anil Grover—who harbor relentless ambitions to live in the United Kingdom for a better life and money. Shah Rukh Khan, playing ex-army man Hardy Singh Dhillon, unwittingly gets involved in their hare-brained scheme to plan themselves in London.
The odds are stacked against these naive goofballs.
They don’t speak English, lack generational family wealth to invest in a foreign country, and have no clout to impress the hostile officials granting visas and travel permits. What they do have, in plenty, is the steely will and wackiness to go to extreme lengths to reach London by hook or by crook.
Their tiny hamlet, Laltu in Punjab, where households have airplanes on their terrace symbolizing at least one family member who made it big in the UK, holds no promise of growth or prosperity for them. They truly believe that transplating their lives in Britian is a quick passport to happiness and wealth.
The satire starts off on a witty note as they try their hardest to learn English, hoping to secure a student visa. The scenes set in the first half, where they enroll in an academy led by a crafty professor (Boman Irani), are comic gold. Vicky Kaushal, in an extended cameo as the troubled Sukhi desperate to reach London to save his ex-girlfriend from domestic abuse, stands tall.
His scenes of breaking down are stirring and touch a nerve. That’s not to say the others aren’t endearing. Every actor, including Khan, Pannu, Grover, and Kochhar—a motley set of immigrant hopefuls—does a neat job of playing their parts. Their bonhomie even in terribly tough times as they put their lives at risk to reach the UK is entertaining.
The digital de-aging of Khan, 58, might grate on our eyes, but there’s no denying the effortless charisma he possesses on the big screen. Pannu and her mates also deliver arresting performances.
Their arduous journey—where they literally cross oceans, deserts, and smelly containers, dodge bullets, and face sadistic border guards—never trespasses into the truly dark zone. Director Hirani treats it like a treacherous adventure filled with mighty humps, but a viewer is never bogged down by it all. At all points, the tone of the film is deliberately kept buoyant and bubbly, but you can sense the undercurrents of policy disaster and illegal immigration rackets/donkey flights run by nefarious agents.
We wish Hirani had sunk his teeth deeper into those sobering issues. The romance between Manu (Taapsee Pannu) and Hardy (Shah Rukh Khan) feels slightly forced in the beginning, but they both grow on you. Separately, both are in top form. While Khan excels in the emotional scenes and falters in the comic scenes by hamming, Pannu exhibits great dexterity as an actress in both comic and tragic-comic scenes too.
Some of the twists in the second half—where they try to legitimize their presence in the UK by marrying a scattered and nicotine-stained toothy Briton—might come across as ludicrous and campy, but that’s a tiny bump in an otherwise enjoyable film.
Kochhar and Grover also pull in their heft. Watch out for the scene when Grover is in the streets of London, busy at work. The travesty and tragedy of the plight of undocumented workers speak loudly. Dignity of labour among menial workers is something of a pipe dream here. Several dialogues at various turns on hostile visa policy and how it favors the rich also strike a chord.
As always, Hirani talks to his viewers rather than indulging in patronising storytelling. This film, a nod to all those migrants who will go to any lengths to reach other countries, is a great end to 2023. Bollywood has officially closed with a bang with Khan and Pannu’s feel-good, comforting comedy of a film ‘Dunki.’
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Shah Rukh Khan, Vicky Kaushal, Vikram Kochhar, Anil Grover, and Boman Irani
Stars: 4 out of 5