Sunday 31 December 2023

Lost in London: "Dunki"

In Hindi film circles, there's little doubt 2023 was the year of a resurgent Shah Rukh Khan. January's slambang actioner Pathaan steamrolled any objections one might have had to the finer points of its plotting; late summer's slapdash Jawan was both a star vehicle and a film that really needed Khan's assured presence to hold its flimsier material together. From afar, Khan's Christmas release Dunki looked the most promising project of all: it's Khan paired with Rajkumar Hirani, long-time king of Bollywood comedy (Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 3 Idiots, P.K.). The surprise, then, is that the finished feature should have generated such lukewarm critical responses. It has emotive, ever-timely subject matter: the psychic bond between India and the UK, the struggles of ordinary folks to get here from there (and get back there after the work/money/wanderlust/patience runs out), the indignities of the visa system, the cruelties of borders. And the first half, at least, bears out Hirani's gift for alighting upon funny scenes, situations and characters - and the actors to do each of these justice. It's Taapsee Pannu escaping hospital and schlepping across central London in a gown and self-supported saline drip so as to give her sleepy immigration lawyer both barrels. It's Shah Rukh observing the national anthem even as some scoundrel nicks off with his shopping. (A scene to delight audiences across India: patriotic and mischievous.) It's an English-language tutor (Boman Irani) who begins class with a rousing, rhyming "Birmingham, here I come" - a line that, let me tell you, hits differently in a cinema packed with actual Brummies. So what's the problem?

It is, I think, one of story structure. Dunki has been pitched as a potentially stirring folks-on-a-mission movie, but it introduces its main characters in present-day London before flashing back to spend well over two hours in the Punjab of 1995, detailing how everybody got where they did. We already know they made it, which renders their scene-by-scene struggles somewhat moot. Hirani seems to have realised as much in coming up with a potent minor role for Vicky Kaushal as an aspirant traveller who slips into despair after his visa application is rejected - and it needs an actor as capable as Kaushal to sell you on such blatant authorial sleight-of-hand. Perhaps we're meant just to enjoy spending time in these characters' company: we do, but is the enjoyment enough to compensate for the almost complete lack of narrative tension? At the end of a year of turbocharged Shah Rukh vehicles - turbocharged to the point of incoherence, in Jawan's case - Dunki presents as soft and slumpy, like a beanbag, or one of the foam mattresses the characters are smuggled inside at one point. (One of its failings: an altogether too cosy vision of human trafficking.) It's actually not the worst form for a holiday release, and in the stronger passages, you find yourself nestling into the film, hoping that everybody on screen gets what they want - that hearts will be healed, and destinations reached. But, in the main, there's no real danger or risk invoked to seriously threaten those outcomes, and the stakes throughout remain shruggingly low. These characters have just been sent out for an unusually long walk, that's all.

Certain elements help to pass the time: pleasant Pritam songs, Paanu underlining her status as a real moviestar, vastly more forceful than anything else around her. (While her character stands upright and fierce, there is life in the movie.) Yet Khan - cast here as an ex-Army fixer, selflessly shepherding his charges towards safety - has played more arresting roles this calendar year; his extended cameo in Tiger 3 yielded more that was memorable. During one big courtroom speech, you sense Hirani leaning on the actor's rhetorical strengths to shore up his increasingly flimsy-looking dramatic thread, and it's just so much less thrilling to witness Khan refuse to talk down the motherland than it was to see him rally Jawan's audience into voting for better politicians. There's also one notable, irksome shortfall of craft: given the very big deal the first half makes of reaching British shores, the UK these characters eventually arrive at doesn't look very much like the UK at all. Its Houses of Parliament have been green-screened in; its Westminster Bridge looks suspect; and the less said about the audibly American vicar, the better. A hazy air of imprecision hovers over the project entire; having paired the most popular star with the most successful director, nobody on the production side seems to have given much thought to nailing down the details. Narratively, it doesn't much matter: having reached London, the film then has to pack everybody back to India in time for tea. We finish a long way from that wave of Nineties and Noughties Hindi blockbusters that wrestled sincerely - and in ways that were dramatically involving - with the diaspora experience. A filmmaker as well-versed in the language of the middlebrow heartwarmer as Hirani would doubtless claim it's not the destination that matters, rather the journey. Yet Dunki is the kind of journey you'd only make if you had nothing more pressing to do, a meander that's simply far more urgent and meaningful for its characters than it ever seems to be for us.

Dunki is now playing in selected cinemas.

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