Dunki Movie Review: Shah Rukh Khan’s Trip Down Memory Lane Falls Short

dunk review

Director: Rajkumar Hirani Writers: Abhijat Joshi, Rajkumar Hirani, Kanika Dhillon Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Vikram Kochhar, Anil Grover, Boman Irani, Vicky Kaushal

Encountering a Rajkumar Hirani film in 2023 is akin to a reunion with a beloved childhood professor. Initially, the waves of nostalgia wash over you, offering a comforting escape from the challenges of adulthood. It’s a pleasure to witness the familiar quirks, humor, illustrative style, and the vintage ability to distill complex lessons into memorable one-liners. The professor’s personality remains unchanged. However, as the meeting progresses, you begin to realize that the entertainment lies more in your memory of him than in the present reality. While he may be the same, the world around him has evolved.

Dunki serves as that nostalgic encounter. The issue doesn’t immediately surface but simmers in a gradual sense of disappointment. The gap between fond illusions and stark reality widens steadily. The title alludes to the “donkey route,” an illicit immigration method for crossing borders into first-world countries. The narrative revolves around four Nineties-era Punjabi youths – Manu (Taapsee Pannu), Buggu (Vikram Kochhar), Balli (Anil Grover), and Hardy (Shah Rukh Khan) – desperate to reach London for a better life, resorting to the risky Dunki as their last option.

How Comedy Shapes the Film Initially, the familiar Hirani touch brings reassurance. Shades of PK (2014) appear as two bickering men are rendered powerless by the national anthem, compelling them to stand still in a public space while a third shamelessly pilfers their belongings. The deadpan humor reminiscent of the Munna Bhai franchise emerges as a lying man swearing on his grandmother transitions to her funeral. Elements of 3 Idiots (2009) surface as rustic backbenchers memorize a standardized English paragraph to pass a visa interview. The film employs two timelines, with a present-day journey interspersed with flashbacks detailing how they reached their current predicament. Vicky Kaushal steals scenes akin to Ali Fazal in 3 Idiots and Jimmy Shergill in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S (2003), embodying a tragic reminder of life in a playground of movie tropes.

However, the film’s lack of depth becomes apparent soon after. Rather than a film designed to convey Dunki-driven commentary, it seems the commentary serves a formulaic film. The donkey route is barely mentioned until moments before the interval. Many jokes, typical of Indian cinema in making light of serious situations, fall flat. Buggu’s motivation, for instance, revolves around his mother being compelled to wear pants as a security guard, lacking the nuanced portrayal seen in 3 Idiots. Manu trains as a wrestler with the promise of being smuggled into England as part of the women’s Olympic team. Hardy, in a drunken state, curses a local for marrying his daughter to an evil NRI, only to realize he’s cursing the wrong balcony. The film’s attempt to turn the tradition of kissing the bride into a cringey gag during a sham marriage adds little substance. A reverse-Dunki arc towards the end, involving fooling a Saudi officer, feels like a poorly executed skit. These vignettes lack the intelligence required for Dunki to carry meaningful impact; instead, they trivialize the drama while attempting to diffuse it.

Shah Rukh Khan in Dunki Excessive SRK Influence A significant drawback of Dunki lies in its heavy reliance on Shah Rukh Khan’s star power. On paper, Khan plays the archetypal Hirani hero – an outsider who transforms his new surroundings as much as the setting transforms him. However, as Khan assumes the role, the character of Hardayal “Hardy” Singh Dhillon, a soldier falling in love with the locals, lacks individualism or texture. Hardy embodies a custom-fitted savior-charmer-leader-chiller, resembling a cinematic sibling of Orry, without distinct traits or evolution. Khan’s military background becomes a convenient excuse for the film’s flexibility, rendering Hardy reminiscent of the random ‘farishta’ (angel) from Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), devoid of a defined past or future.

The intrusive presence of the SRK hero overshadows the humanitarian essence of Hirani’s typical hero. Despite the film featuring multiple characters, much of it seems crafted around Khan and his image. Iconic poses, reminiscent of his previous films, permeate Dunki, from the classic arms-spread pose to an airport reunion echoing Veer-Zaara (2004). The action sequences, an underwater stroll and a peculiarly staged desert shootout in Iran, emphasize Hardy’s hardiness. The Jeddah segment feels like a buy-one-get-one-free tribute to Happy New Year (2014). Even when Khan portrays his age, the film still seems to project him ‘acting’ old, akin to a gingerly Veer Pratap Singh. Dunki often looks more like the story of a patriotic man patiently waiting 25 years for his soulmate after choosing his nation over her. For better or worse, divorcing Khan’s legacy from the films he stars in becomes challenging. Dunki becomes a casualty to this legacy, unlike recent releases Pathaan and Jawan.

Hardy’s frequent emotional moments, a common trait among Khan protagonists, fail to resonate, with the actor’s crying expressions falling short of the edgy Nineties’ scowl. Even in the scene where Hardy engages a stern British judge with a monologue about a border-free planet, the judge’s attention seems captivated solely because Khan is delivering the lines. While the writing itself lacks brilliance, the superstar’s presence in the character is hard to overlook. Hirani, known for camouflaging pop-cultural faces with satirical facades, struggles with Dunki due to an imbalance – too much of Hirani and not enough.

The initial surge of nostalgia diminishes, and the stark reality becomes apparent: the professor is now aged, out-of-touch, socially performative, and a simplistic misfit in the contemporary world. What’s even more disheartening is that he scarcely recalls you, persistently viewing you as the 11-year-old he lectured to years ago. All that remains is to depart with a courageous smile, unable to confess the truth, and too intricate to elucidate. You dispatch a message to the school WhatsApp group, aptly named 8 Idiots: “Aal Izz Well. Sir gave me a soft jadoo ki jhappi.” Inverted smiley-face.

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