'Dunki' review: SRK's verve and vigour worth the price of admission
As director, Hirani manages to strike a fair balance between Khan's magnified persona and the jointly light-hearted and grimy requirements of the narrative
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Vikram Kochhar, Anil Grover, Vicky Kaushal, Boman Irani
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
At certain points during the proceedings of Dunki, it might appear as though writers Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi have concocted an elongated and simplistically sentimental defense of illegal immigration, but the conceptual kernel of the film confronts a far more elusive question: what are the procedural densities that govern the determination of illegality itself?
As a character desperately pleads to an IELTS examiner, "Don't cling to rules, sir. Understand feelings... I am her only hope. Don't kill hope." All of its structural shortcomings notwithstanding, the film must be credited for boldly sticking to this impassioned and heartfelt commentary on how national borders and the process of granting visas only bar the underprivileged, while those with access to greater wealth and education essentially enjoy a world with perennially porous borders.
If such emotions seem too heavy and potentially too heavy-handed to execute, one can be assured that the effortless verve and vigour with which this force of nature called Shah Rukh Khan shoulders his third film of the year is reason enough to bear the cost of admission.
Following the tracks of Jawan, Dunki is the year's second film featuring Khan that effectively utilises age-old beats and traps of popular Hindi cinema to convey some timely and urgent messages without awkward exaggerations or fluffy perorations.
As director, Hirani manages to strike a fair balance between Khan's magnified persona and the jointly light-hearted and grimy requirements of the narrative. As Hardayal Singh Dhillon of Pathankot, Khan surrenders to the setting to blend into the idyllic little world of Laltu in Punjab with a slight dissonance and a heightened energy that fit the character.
Upon arriving in Laltu, Dhillon chances upon three friends from the village, each with their unique set of crippling economic circumstances that compel them to seek recourse in the aspirations of venturing across the seas: Manu Basant Randhawa (Pannu), Balindar 'Buggu' Lakhanpal (Kochhar), and Balli Kakkad (Grover). In a special appearance, Vicky Kaushal shines as Sukhi Mangal, another feverishly anxious aspiring migrant who wishes to journey for more selfless reasons.
The film, however, does not let these unfettered emotions completely overpower the purport of the screenplay. The first half, especially, is skillfully composed; it is in its advance toward the final act that the film falters palpably, with certain portions feeling rushed and repetitive. The pitch of Khan's performance also feels overcooked in some of these portions.
The interplay of comedic breaks and dolorous events often feels mismatched here; for instance, despite the eventual effectiveness of the emotional tracks, the depth of the bond between the central characters needed more space to be fully fleshed out. Hirani's usual adeptness in putting a potpourri of varied emotional tonalities together often seems to be missing in action; the deftness and the intent are solid, but the implementation is not nimble enough.
In this specific aspect, Hirani seems to have established a pattern; even in Sanju, his last directorial venture, a deft grip on the core of the narrative was similarly undermined by frequently haphazard editing, rushed exposition, and clunky tonal shifts.
That aside, the stability of the performances and Pritam's reliable music hold the film together well enough to glide over the rough edges. Kaushal and Grover deliver standout performances, while Pannu is given room to breathe in a role that is less bellicose and more restrained, though a relatively weaker raison d'être for her refusal to return to her homeland coupled with a lack of conviction in Manu's characterisation might vex some.
In the end, will the magic of Shah Rukh Khan be able to charm the audiences enough to help him score a hattrick to complete the year with Dunki? While that is impossible to predict, the sentimental punches pack enough of a wallop and Hirani's trademark gags land comfortably enough to prevent Dunki from becoming too perilous an excursion.