Dunki Review: Simplistic Storytelling With a Rousing Vicky Kaushal Cameo

Co-written, edited, and directed by Rajkumar Hirani, the film stars Shah Rukh Khan and Taapsee Pannu.
Dunki Review: This Is Simplistic, Not Simple Storytelling, With a Rousing Vicky Kaushal Cameo
Dunki Review: This Is Simplistic, Not Simple Storytelling, With a Rousing Vicky Kaushal Cameo

Director: Rajkumar Hirani

Cast:  Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal, Boman Irani, Vikram Kochhar, Anil Grover

Writer(s): Rajkumar Hirani, Abhijat Joshi, Kanika Dhillon

Duration: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Writer, editor, and director Rajkumar Hirani has, rather helpfully, theorised his craft for us, following what he calls the LCD principle — where a scene is either supposed to make you Laugh, Cry, or pulp you with Drama. It is a careful, scientific emotional manipulation, scripting a scene for the heart; to cerebrally make something visceral. 

This heart-head dichotomy is a conservative idea. That we think differently, feel differently, each being distinct from one another. That we cannot feel through thought; that we cannot think through feelings. 

Besides, the itch here is when you can see through the narrative trickery so clearly. To see where the director wants you at, emotionally, and to see where you are at, emotionally, and to not know what to do with that unbridgeable chasm.  

To see Dunki, then, is to stare into this chasm with a lethargic vertigo. Hirani has made a career out of love, and with this love to poke holes at institutions we deem essential to our lives — hospitals, colleges, religion. There is no irony, because where there is irony, there can be no love. There isn’t a snarky bone in his cinema. It is a sincere revolution whose weapon of choice is the glycerine monologue.  

Shah Rukh Khan as Hardy.
Shah Rukh Khan as Hardy.

The Ambition of the Characters

With Dunki, he turns this tender gaze towards the immigration system, the rigmarole that visas, passports, and borders require. It is, no doubt, a grander, more ambitious, global institution that Hirani has chosen to scrape at here. That ambition, then, needed not just more heart, but more thought, too. To advocate for the reform of educational institutions is a far less daunting task than asking to reform the whole global system of borders, immigration, and the capital that girds it all. But this is the task that Hirani, and his co-writers Abhijat Joshi and Kanika Dhillon, have set for themselves. 

Manu (Taapsee Pannu — who gets top billing), Buggu (Vikram Kochhar) and Balli (Anil Grover), residents of Laltu, a village in Punjab, want to go to London to make money. This is the Nineties. They meet Hardy (Shah Rukh Khan), a fauji who airdrops into their lives, and together, they chart an illegal route — the Dunki route — after all their attempts at legal immigration fail, given that they are lacking in qualifications; no education, linguistic, cultural, or financial capital to speak of. 

It is right here the film begins wobbling. The central flux of the story itself is never convincing. Why do these people want to go to London — as though there was no alternative between pind and pardes? Their poverty isn’t grinding enough to make the rough passage between the continents feel worthy. The travel itself is so airbrushed it feels neither desperate nor sincere. Some of their companions are gunned down in the process, and their death is registered as a shrug. All characters are one question away from realising the futility, the redundancy, and the ridiculousness of this endeavour. 

A still from the film.
A still from the film.

Treading Difficult Lines

The second, related flux, and this is my moral quandary with the film, is that it wants to both express love for India while also trying to establish, with truth, that people want to leave this country. Unemployment is never brought up. The lacking opportunities that pervade Punjab, leaving many families to languish in the village is not brought up. Drug addiction, an ailing epidemic there, is not even on the radar of this world. It is just that they want to leave; that the British plundered us, and that between the British and the present there was no Indian state that could have paved an alternative path.

It is troubling that the film wants to equate people wanting to leave India for economic opportunities to mass movements that happens because of war, famine, and genocide — Hardy argues, at the end, they all die anyway. To watch Dunki when land, in real time, is being forcefully emptied of its inhabitants is to see a tantrum that demands the sincerity of your affection, but has not afforded its intention more introspection. Hardy asks, if flamingos can fly without a visa, why can’t we? What have we, as a human race, done to ourselves? 

Where do I begin?  

Hirani’s films, like Hardy says in a moving stretch of dialogue, are textbook examples of fighting against “aasani se dushmani”. But at what point do you refuse to distinguish being simple from being simplistic?

A still from the film.
A still from the film.

Awkward Approach to Emotions

Besides, the emotional register of the film — a combination of its toying score and piece-meal writing — is an awkward, unsteady landscape. When a son breaks the FD of his working mother to get his visa and is scammed, the film tries to tilt this tragedy into comedy. Whose loss to frame as worthy of pain, and whose to make pleasurable? Similarly, Hardy’s physical altercation at a wedding in London keeps swinging between melodrama and comedy, approaching both, reaching neither. 

The problem that is immediately apparent with Dunki is that characters seem to live too much of their lives off-screen. Their dialogues, then, become spaces not to articulate the present, but the past. The film is constantly rumbling into back stories. For too long into the film, you are waiting for the film to truly begin. The screenplay cannot seem to move forward without explaining the past, and so characters are never really present. 

So, then, when all the dust settles in the end, and characters are forcefully made to celebrate the present-ness of their being after all that drama, those torturous journeys and homesick years, it feels like two biographies colliding, not two people. 

A brief aside to discuss what I think is the emotional core of the film — Vicky Kaushal’s cameo. Kaushal has established himself as a presence that can transcend the film. He has a small role in Dunki, of a love-sick man who wants to go to London to save his lover from an abusive marriage, and in his dialogue delivery — the huffing one take scene of him rumbling through punctuation and grammar; the rum-drenched heartbroken scene — is able to evoke an entire world, his entire back-story emerging into emotional shape. Once he exits the film’s stage, the second half becomes an emotional wasteland, lulling without tension, humour, or pathos. I am coming dangerously close to using a word I would never have imagined in connection with Hirani’s craft — anaesthetic. 

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