In Dunki, Shah Rukh Khan’s character Hardy Singh waits forever for his beloved. He falls in love with Taapsee Pannu’s Mannu. She’s obviously smitten with him, and their romance soars. Unfortunately, they separate in unforeseen circumstances and don’t see each other for twenty-five long years. But Hardy doesn’t move on from Mannu and lives in utter solitude, possibly also abstaining from you-know-what. He grows old and weary, but his love for Mannu remains as fresh as a daisy. It is bound to remind you of the Yash Chopra epic Veer Zara, which released almost two decades ago, where Khan played a very similar character. Like Dunki’s Hardy, Veer Pratap Singh was also an army man. Akin to how Hardy meets Mannu, Veer too met Zara accidentally. Not to mention, he also fell in love, which was reciprocated, and then the lovers had to part ways. And that was followed by Veer waiting for Zara for an eternity, albeit in prison. The similarities between Dunki and Veer Zara are overwhelming, and I suppose intentional as well, at least in the context of the characters Khan plays. But here’s the thing: No, scratch that. Here’s the problem.
Dunki is a Rajkumar Hirani film. And even though SRK has the notorious reputation of steamrolling the vision of certain directors with his superstardom (Anand L. Rai and Imtiaz Ali would probably testify to this), here he has completely surrendered himself to Hirani. Given the kind of hold Hirani has over the box office, Khan probably thought it would be safer if he just listened to Raju sir and followed the instructions to the tee. We need to remember that when Dunki was conceived, Khan was going through his sabbatical from movies, and his numbers at the box office had taken a nosedive. He didn’t have Jawan and Pathan under his belt. Hardy Singh is the combined result of all that. So while he is everything that Veer Pratap Singh was, he also has to be a bumbling idiot. A loveable one nonetheless, but still an idiot. He always has to jump around, speak in a manner similar to Rancho and PK (both played by Aamir Khan, co-incidentally), and do goofy things. Khan has a knack for not shying away from playing characters that a superstar of his stature would think twice before committing to. From a dwarf to a bootlegger to the obsessive fan of a superstar (also played by him, who else?), he has done it all in the past, which kind of risked his stardom, if you go by the numbers. Playing a Raju Hirani hero is rather a safe choice, from a financial perspective, and Khan completely gets into it and sells it all too well.
Does it work, though? Sadly no. And the reason for that is not Khan, but Hirani. The man has been making money by selling his make-believe worlds of feel-good, where all has to be “well” by the end. That did work with the Munnabhai films and with 3 Idiots to some extent, but that’s about it. And 3 Idiots was fourteen years ago. Hirani hasn’t changed since then, and Dunki is a clear symptom of that. There’s nothing wrong with taking socially relevant issues as grave as illegal immigration through Dunki flights and making social satire out of it. But the biggest roadblock is Hirani’s sense of humor, as well as his sensibilities. In the world of Dunki, we have to laugh at jokes that come out of an older woman being ogled for wearing cotton pants, which makes her son insecure. We have to believe that a Saudi immigration official can easily be fooled. And a British judge has no problem listening to an SRK monologue and tearing up. The last one is still acceptable, for the sake of argument. But you know what’s infuriating? Hirani shows us real images of illegal immigrants all over the world, and that too in monochrome. Then he follows that with Hardy and his friends joking over the same woman, now even older, wearing jeans. Why pretend to make a film about things that matter when you can’t step out of your world of buffoonery?
Interestingly, while SRK has to succumb to Hirani’s world, Vicky Kaushal does get to play something that is almost a reboot of his Masaan character, whose grief literally never ends. In fact, his ending here is absolutely horrifying, and since Kaushal’s appearance is only an extended cameo, he doesn’t have to piggyback on a typical Hirani character. And the result of that is that, even in an SRK film, Kaushal is the one who shines the brightest. Hirani successfully ruins all the impact of his role, though, by randomly adding three minor characters to the narrative in the second half, just for the sake of more drama.
Khan does have his moments in Dunki, though. There are places where he gets the opportunity to wield his “King of Romance” weapon. And like Taapsee Pannu having way too many fan moments in the film, the entire audience pretty much swoons over his charm. It’s hard to get invested thanks to the ludicrous screenplay, but Khan pretty much manages to break your heart when he tears up in what should have been the final scene of the movie. But Hirani doesn’t allow us to grieve. So the screen must not be cut to black with the image of a heartbroken Hardy crying after realizing that he has lost the love of his life (excuse the spoiler, sorry). We must stay for ten more minutes and leave the theaters with a “live, love, laugh” philosophy shoved down our throats. And now that Hardy has no “love” in his life, as a Raju Hirani man, it’s his responsibility to keep living and laughing over unfunny jokes. Even if his entire life is ninety percent misery, if you think about it, Hardy talks about his real Dunki being the struggle to live without Mannu at the end of the film. When will our Dunki end? Only when Raju sir stops making these socially “relevant” movies, I suppose.