Few will dispute that 2023 has been the year of Shah Rukh Khan. Khan has long been dubbed the “Baadshah (King) of Bollywood,” and back-to-back crowd-pleasing blockbusters in Pathaan and Jawan have reaffirmed this moniker. Now, the superstar returns once again to close out the year, but this time with his comedic drama Dunki. The film marks his first collaboration with arguably Indian cinema's most revered director, Rajkumar Hirani. For 20 years, Hirani has masterfully weaved together films that deliver laugh-out-loud moments and highly emotional scenes within a finely structured narrative that explores meaningful subject matters – while making it look seamless. Few have achieved this feat with such regularity as Hirani. Therefore, his first collaboration with Khan was a highly anticipated one. Fortunately, Dunki does provide plenty of laughs and touching moments, but it's not the grand slam audiences expected.
Dunki tells the story of three friends, Manu (Taapsee Pannu), Buggu (Vikram Kochhar), and Balli (Anil Grover), in Laltu, Punjab, who all have the dream of going to London to change the fortune of their families. However, their dreams appear to be dashed when all legal routes to India seem impossible. Until a former soldier, Hardy (Khan), promises to get them to London. It's a journey that results in them taking the illegal and dangerous Dunki (Donkey) route. The film opens in typical Hirani fashion, with an older Manu humorously escaping a hospital by bribing a worker to let her smoke outside. Not long after, we see Manu contact Hardy. The conversation effectively teases the long history between the characters but also displays one of the strongest elements of this tale, their love story. Manu, Buggu, and Balli are then en route to meet Hardy, and it is here when we journey back 25 years to witness how the story of these four friends led us to the present day.
Although Hirani's film does struggle to settle from the offset, the first half, which explores our protagonists' journey in finding a path to London, is where the director's trademark humour shines brightest. A perfect illustration of this is when our heroes take the IELTS exam, which sees Manu struggle to explain how to make an aloo paratha (potato flatbread) in English and Hardy listing off family members that have died – slowly- to fill up two minutes of having to speak in English. It's not only a terrifically entertaining sequence but one of the most successful portions of the entire film, where it makes you laugh while smoothly moving the narrative forward.
Much like his two previous outings this year, Khan is one of the standout elements of this film. But on this occasion, it was Khan's chemistry with his leading lady, Taapsee. The relationship between Hardy and Manu shines brightly throughout the two-hour-forty-minute runtime, with Khan and Taapsee providing sweetness and charm to their dynamic through the subtlest of expressions. As the story builds, so does our love for them. It's for this reason their scenes deliver the all-important emotional moments. Whether it's Hardy staring at Manu while they pray, Manu leaping into Hardy's arms after realising his love for her, or their poetic final scene together – these two characters touch our hearts and make us feel – like a Hirani film should. Unfortunately, these moments are not as frequent or as consistent as one would hope.
Despite the director's formula being visible, this time around, it does not always have the desired effect. Dunki can feel like a farce – someone attempting a Hirani film as opposed to the man himself leading the charge. Unlike his previous outings, Dunki's script is clustered – as a result – the story never truly settles and can deviate from its central storyline. Even our leading characters feel underdeveloped, making it more challenging for us to invest in important scenes. In past films, Hirani effortlessly made us cry and laugh; in his latest, it feels like he's forcing us to.
“Lutt Putt Gaya” aside, no song stands out in Dunki, and the weaker script means the film's supporting cast struggles to deliver great performances, including Boman Irani. However, Hirani does restore order with an intelligent and touching final act. In the end, Dunki possesses enough charm and feel-good moments to make it an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, the enormous expectations for this film will lead to people judging it far more harshly than if it were in the hands of another director. Enjoy it, but don't expect a masterpiece.
Dunki is now in cinemas.