For the second time this month, a Persian song has a strange effect on a Hindi film scene. In Animal, the effect is perversely counterintuitive, a childlike folk song to celebrate the wedding of a debauched killer. But in Dunki, the song is at cross-purposes with the desired effect. A group of illegal immigrants from India run into a patrol in an Iranian desert. One of the guards orders them to run. He then walks to a vantage point and starts picking them off with his rifle. Every time we cut back to him, a catchy Farsi tune plays. I know he’s meant to be a sadistic villain, but the music and dangling cigarette and the way he’s shot just make the guard look incredibly cool.
You can tell this scene got away from the director. Rajkumar Hirani's films might be unique and popular but they're never cool. His protagonists are brawny goofs and kindly aliens and misfit geniuses: unformed, bumbling, endearing types. No major Hindi film director has a more nondescript visual style. He goes from slapstick to sentiment to sermon quicker than anyone. Everything is planned. There’s always—always —a message.
Having successfully solved all of India’s problems in his earlier films, Hirani turns a judging eye on immigration policies in the West. Manu (Taapsee Pannu), Balli (Anil Grover) and Buggu (Vikram Kocchar) are friends in a small village in Punjab in the mid-90s, all broke and underqualified but desperate to move to England. They’re joined by visiting soldier Hardy (Shah Rukh Khan), who’s charmed by Manu and becomes the group’s de facto leader (there’s also the lovelorn Sukhi, a cameo by Vicky Kaushal). In its slapstick first half, the film runs through the options available to immigrants: fake marriages, forged certificates, student visa after passing a language exam. When all these fail, a cheaper, more dangerous option is suggested: overland from India to Europe on the ‘donkey’ route, which in the film’s parlance becomes ‘dunki’.
This is Hirani’s first film since Sanju (2018) and the allegations of sexual misconduct against him in an investigative piece some months after its release. On the evidence of an early morning first-day screening, he still has that direct line to the public that eludes most of his peers. I continue to find his humour facile and his lecturing exasperating, but he has a way of making viewers feel like they’re in on the joke. Hirani and longtime collaborator Abhijat Joshi and Kanika Dhillon build simple ideas into comic set pieces that ripple into other scenes, a system of delayed punchlines and callbacks that's more formally impressive than actually funny. Nothing is used just once—Buggu’s mother having to wear trousers is fodder for at least half a dozen jokes.
The problem with construction this meticulous is you can’t help but see scaffolding everywhere. For all their emotional excesses of their films, I’ve always felt Hirani and Joshi treat their material with an engineer’s detachment—every joke, every plot development a problem to be solved. Dunki is a vacuum-packed 161 minutes, so bent on utilizing every moment that its very industry becomes oppressive. There's a scene where Hardy is overcome and Manu tells the others: “He's a soldier, let him cry alone.” Yet, in the next shot, she's right with him, talking him out of his grief.
During the long ‘dunki’ passage, I was reminded of a film I saw recently, Tewfik Saleh’s The Dupes (1972), also about dangerous border crossings. The tension Saleh builds up is searingly emotional because we feel the desperation of the people putting themselves in harm’s way. Hardy and his friends face similar dangers, yet Dunki doesn’t have anything like the same tension. The film is only interested in illegal immigration and the refugee crisis to the extent that it allows Hirani and Khan to grandstand—one especially blatant instance is Hardy saying he won’t ‘give gaalis’ to his country to gain political asylum.
Hirani uses a 3 Idiots-like structure, introducing us to old Manu and Hardy and then showing their story in flashback. It’s not a fruitful decision, not least because Khan has spent so many years playing younger than his actual age that his instincts for playing older aren’t as sure (Pannu is better as older Manu because she doesn’t try as hard). After Pathaan and Jawan this year, Dunki is a break from Khan the action star but offers no respite from the Khan the perfect screen idol. It’s not as if there’s anyone better-equipped in Hindi cinema to play a romantic feminist soldier patriot friend. But Khan is always more interesting with kinks. I’d like some grey in the soul to go with the hair.