Review: ‘Dunki,’ starring Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal and Boman Irani

January 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anil Grover, Taapsee Pannu, Shah Rukh Khan, Vicky Kaushal and Vikram Kochhar in “Dunki” (Photo courtesy of Yash Raj Films)


Directed by Rajkumar Hirani

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1995 to 2020, in Asia and in Europe, the comedy/drama film “Dunki” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A group of friends from India have various experiences in their efforts to illegally immigrate to the United Kingdom.

Culture Audience: “Dunki” will appeal primarily to people who are fans the movie’s headliners and comedy/drama films that cover social issues in ways that are often awkward.

Boman Irani in “Dunki” (Photo courtesy of Yash Raj Films)

“Dunki” clumsily mixes absurdist comedy with preachy drama in making statements about the dangers of undocumented immigration. Every time a serious life-threatening situation is depicted, the movie then throws in silly jokes for some cheap laughs. These awkward tonal shifts dilute the movie’s intentions more often than not, although the cast members try hard to keep a balance in this erratic film.

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, “Dunki” has a title that refers to India’s Punjab term “donkey flight,” which is a way to illegally immigrate to other countries—usually Western countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Hirani co-wrote the “Dunki” screenplay with Abhijat Joshi and Kanika Dhillon. “Dunki,” whose story spans about 25 years, is about the shenanigans of a group of friends who go through various trials and tribulations as “dunki” immigrants who are desperate to move to London. None of the “Dunki” cast members gives a particularly impressive performance.

“Dunki” begins in 2020. Manu Randhawa (played by Taapsee Pannu), a woman in her 50s, is in a wheelchair at a London hospital. She bribes a hospital orderly to wheel her out of the hospital because she’s not supposed to be discharged from the hospital yet. As soon as Manu leaves the hospital, she gets out of the wheelchair and goes to the office of immigration attorney Puru Patel (played by Deven Bhojani), who knows her from interactions with her 25 years earlier in 1995.

Manu begs Puru to find a way to get a visa for her to go back to India (she’s a native of Punjab), but Puru says Manu is not allowed to go back to India. Puru tells Manu that Dubai is the nation closest to India where she can get a visa. Manu isn’t happy about these circumstances, but she accepts the visa to Dubai. It’s explained later in the movie why Manu was in a hospital and why she can’t go back to India.

When Manu is Puru’s office, she makes a phone call to Hardayal “Hardy” Singh Dhillon (played by Shah Rukh Khan), a man she fell in love with when she met him in 1995. Hardy is in Punjab, where he is in the middle of a foot race at a racing track when he gets the call from Manu. She jokingly refers to herself as Hardy’s wife and says she needs to tell him something important in person, but he has to meet her in Dubai, becase she can’t get a visa to go to India.

Hardy is curious and delighted to hear from Manu, so he agrees to Manu’s invitation to go to Dubai. Manu makes arrangements with Puru for her two longtime friends Balli Kakkad (played by Anil Grover) and Balindar “Buggu” Lakhanpal (played by Vikram Kochhar), who also live in London, to also get visas to Dubai, so that these two pals can accompany her on the trip. Balli and Buggu work together in a clothing shop called Punjab Tailors.

Before “Dunki” shows this trip toward the end of the movie, most of the film switches to a flashback to 1995. At the time, Manu, Balli and Buggu were all in their mid-20s, financially struggling, and yearning for a better life, which they believe they have a better chance of achieving in London. The problem is that their chances of being legally approved for a visa are very low because they are poor and uneducated.

Manu is an underappreciated cook and server at a local casual eatery, where her specialty is making parathas. She’s miserable in her job, mainly because her boss Bobby Dhaba (played by Piyush Raina) is an egotistical jerk. Balli is a barber who lacks confidence in a lot of areas in his life. Buggu is a sales clerk at a clothing shop, who is a “mama’s boy” at home. In the minds of all three friends, London is like a “promised land” where their dreams can be fulfilled.

Through a series of circumstances, the three friends end up in the office of Puru, who was based in India at the time. Puru is an attorney who uses shady business practices to exploit desperate people who want quick visas. He thinks up deceptive schemes for his clients to tell lies in order to get visas.

Puru says Balli can get a spouse visa by marrying a British citizen who’s a drug addict and willing to marry an immigrant stranger for money. Puru says Buggu can get a business visa, based on Buggu’s very limited business knowledge of working in retail. Puru says Manu can get a sports visa, even though she has no real athletic skills. Puru comes up with the idea to pretend that Manu is a track runner.

It just so happens that Manu meets Hardy around the same time she’s planning to get a visa under false pretenses. Hardy visits the home of Manu’s family, where she lives with her parents (played by Manoj Kant and Amardeep Jha) and other family members. Hardy has arrived in town because he was in combat with Manu’s older brother Mahinder (played by Suhail Zargar, shown in a flashback) and wants to return some items that belong to Mahinder.

However, Hardy is shocked and dismayed to find out that Mahinder died in a car accident and has left behind a widow and a son. Manu’s family has fallen on hard times in other ways. The family went into debt to a loan shark, who has now seized ownership of the family’s home.

The main reason why Manu wants to move to London is to make enough money to send back to her family so that they can buy back the family house. Manu tells Hardy all about this sob story, as well as the visa scheme to pretend that she’s a track runner. Hardy agrees to be her coach and then gets involved in the plans to immigrate to London with Manu, Balli and Buggu.

One of the more frustrating things about “Dunki” is that it’s a 161-minute movie that wastes a lot of screen time by cramming in a lot of subplots, some of which are abandoned for another distracting subplot. The subplot about Manu’s charade as an athlete is ditched for a fairly long stretch of the movie where Hardy, Manu, Balli and Buggu enroll in an English-language class, which is required for them to get their visas to the United Kingdom.

In this English-language class, they befriend a neurotic man named Sukhi (played by Vicky Kaushal), who wants to move to London to save his ex-girlfriend Jassi, who is married to an abusive man. The teacher of this English-language class is a pompous buffoon named Geetendar “Geetu” Gulati (played by Boman Irani), who treats his students in a very condescending manner. He also has contempt for his students, because he thinks that most of them are planning to do something illegal or dishonest to get visas.

The movie’s running joke for these classroom scenes is that Geetu is fixated on teaching the students how to say in English: “I want to use the lavatory.” This joke runs out of steam quickly, but it’s repeated to the point of annoyance in “Dunki.” However, a highlight of these classroom scenes is when Sukhi gives a very funny monologue to prove he’s learned a lot more English than Geetu thinks he has.

The sprawling and frequently disjointed story in “Dunki” shows the undocumented immigrant pals going to various countries in Asia and Europe in their quest to get to London. Along the way, a lot of dark and depressing things happen, such as suicide, murder, and the constant threat of being in violent danger during this journey. The movie also shows grim statistics and real news photos about deaths that can happen to people who immigrate to countries through illegal means.

“Dunki” is a very off-putting mess that goes back-and-forth between showing all of this harsh gloom and then switching to idiotic slapstick comedy in ridiculous scenarios. It diminishes the real-life immigrant suffering that the movie is trying to convey. At one point, the plight of refugees seeking asylum becomes a part of the story. And that’s when the movie really goes downhill and never recovers.

“Dunki” has lot of subtle and not-so-subtle preaching that visas are a form of class discrimination. However, this argument is very warped in the movie in how it tries to equate the living conditions that Hardy, Manu, Balli and Buggu want to leave in India to the living conditions of refugees who are fleeing their homelands because their lives are in danger. The fact of the matter is that Hardy, Manu, Balli and Buggu are not even close to being refugees who are fleeing from life-threatening danger in their homeland. The main motivation that Hardy, Manu, Balli and Buggu have to leave India and move to London is to make more money.

“Dunki” also wants to condemn the people who exploit desperate undocumented immigrants, but this condemnation is also mishandled by presenting all of these exploiters (such as a corrupt attorneys or human trafficking smugglers) as cartoonish characters. In “Dunki,” immigration officials are also caricatures, who are usually depicted as hateful bigots or completely incompetent. And ultimately, “Dunki” is insulting to the protagonists that the movie claims to be rooting for, by making these protagonists look very dimwitted.

The movie spends so much time not being able to make up its mind on whether to be a wacky misadventure or a cautionary tale, it treats the love story of Hardy and Manu almost like an afterthought. There isn’t much in “Dunki” to convince viewers that Hardy and Manu should be together, especially when they see each other in middle age and play immature and deceptive games with each other about their marital status. If you think that “Dunki” will be a clever satire of immigration problems, then look elsewhere, because “Dunki” is not that movie.

Yash Raj Films released “Dunki” in select U.S. cinemas on December 21, 2023, the same date that the movie was released in India.

Review: ‘Dobaaraa,’ starring Taapsee Pannu and Pavail Gulati

August 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Taapsee Pannu in “Dobaaraa” (Photo courtesy of Bulaji Motion Pictures)


Directed by Anurag Kashyap

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1996 and in 2021, in Hinjawadi, Pune, India, the sci-fi drama film “Dobaaraa” (a remake of the 2018 Spanish film “Mirage”) features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman in the medical profession finds out that she can see the past through a television set, and she tries to prevent the death of a boy who was killed in an auto accident 25 years earlier. 

Culture Audience: “Dobaaraa” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Taapsee Pannu and Pavail Gulati; the original “Mirage” film; and suspenseful movies about time traveling and alternate realities.

Pavail Gulati in “Dobaaraa” (Photo courtesy of Bulaji Motion Pictures)

The last 15 minutes of “Dobaaraa” try to rush in a lot of convenient solutions, but this sci-fi thriller (a remake of the 2018 Spanish film “Mirage”) is riveting from beginning to end. Some parts of the movie are predictable, while others are not. Fans of alternate-reality stories should enjoy “Dobaaraa,” but viewers must be willing to pay full attention, in order for the movie to have its intended impact. In other words, the alternate realities in the story might confuse people who aren’t fully engaged or are easily distracted by other things while watching the movie.

Directed by Anurag Kashyap and written by Nihit Bhave, “Dobaaraa” (which translates to “second time” in Hindi) goes back and forth between the years 1996 and 2021, but the story takes place mostly in 2021. “Dobaaraa” opens in 1996, in Hinjawadi, Pune, India. On the night of an electrical storm, a 12-year-old boy named Anay (played by Arrian Sawant) is witnessing a disturbing crime in the house directly across the street from the house where he lives: A woman named Rujuta (played by Medini Kelamane) is being beaten severely by her cruel and abusive husband Raja Ghosh (played by Saswata Chatterjee) during a domestic violence argument.

During this attack, Rujuta is knocked down to the floor. Not quite believing what he just saw, Anay runs over to the Ghosh house to see if Rujuta is okay. When he goes in the house (the front door is unlocked), Anay sees Rujuta’s bloody and lifeless body on the living room floor. Suddenly, Raja appears in the doorway and sees that Anay knows that Rujuta is dead.

“Who are you?” Raja yells at Anay. A frightened Anay runs away as Raja chases after Anay. Anay runs out into the street to go back to his house, but he is tragically hit and killed by a fire truck before he makes it back to his house.

Anay was an only child who lived with his single mother Shikha Vats (played by Vidushi Mehta), who is a loving and devoted parent. At the time of Anay’s death, his parents were separated and headed for divorce. Anay’s father was not been involved in raising Anay since the separation. Anay missed his father immensely, so Anay would often make home video messages that he wanted his father to eventually see.

When Anay made these video messages, he usually set the video camera up on the television in his bedroom. This television becomes an important element of the story, because the TV becomes a time portal where someone from the future can see Anay. It’s also mentioned several times in the movie that Anay was a big fan of the 1984 sci-fi action film “The Terminator,” which had a time-traveling aspect to the story where someone from the future must save someone from the past.

The movie then fast-forwards 25 years after Anay’s death to 2021. The perspective shifts to a nurse in her late 30s named Antara Bhatt (played by Taapsee Pannu), who works at Blue Cross Hospital, where she often assists a surgeon named Dr. Sethupathi (played by Nassar). Antara is somewhat of an unconventional hospital nurse because she wears a nose ring. She is happy in her job but unhappy in her marriage to Vikas Awasthi (played by Rahul Bhat), who works as a hotel manager.

The discontent in their marriage is shown early on, in a scene in the couple’s kitchen, where Antara tells Vikas that his nonsense used to be music to her ears. “But now, you irritate me,” she coldly says to him. The couple apparently had conversations about splitting up before, but these conversations are not in the movie. However, Antara and Vikas have already decided that they are going to separate.

Vikas tells Antara that they should wait one month before they discuss the separation with their daughter Avanti (played by Myra Rajpal), who’s about 6 or 7 years old. Avanti is the couple’s only child. Vikas and Antara both adore Avanti, but Antara is the more attentive parent.

The decision to separate has come at an awkward time because Antara and Vikas have recently moved into a house. Antara has a platonic male friend named Abhishek (played by Sukant Goel), whom she met when they both attended the same university. Abhishek is one of two guests who attend a small housewarming dinner party hosted by Antara and Vikas.

Abishek tells Antara that he’s very familiar with this house because it’s where his childhood friend Anay used to live before Anay was tragically killed when he was hit by a fire truck on a rainy night. Abishek also says that Anay was died after witnessing a domestic violence murder at a neighbor’s house. The guilt-ridden neighbor confessed to his wife’s murder and admitted his role in inadvertently causing Anay’s death.

And guess who is also with Abhishek at this party? Anay’s mother Shikha, who became a mother figure to Abhishek after Anay’s death. Abhishek tells Antara stories about his childhood memories of Anay and how they used to love watching “The Terminator” together. Antara also hears about Anay’s video messages to his father.

The TV set that Anay’s family used to have is still in the house in the room that used to be Anay’s bedroom. Abhishek is amazed to see that this old TV is still there. Shikha is overcome with emotion and she can no longer stay in the house because it brings back painful memories. Her sadness puts a damper on the dinner party, which soon ends.

After the guests leave, a curious Antara turns on the television set. And she sees a boy on the screen who is filming himself and making a video message. To Antara’s shock, the boy on the TV can see and hear her too. She asks the boy what his name is, and he says his name is Anay. Antara notices that it’s raining heavily where Anay is, while Anay notices that Anatara is in a room that looks like his bedroom.

And when Anay tells Antara that he can hear the neighbor spouses fighting in the house across the street, Antara immediately knows that she’s looking into the past on the night that Anay was killed. Antara begs Anay not to go outside, because she says she’s from the future, and she knows that he will be hit by a truck if he goes outside. Anay doesn’t believe she’s from the future until she tells him about Abhishek.

The rest of “Dobaaraa” is somewhat of a mind-bending ride where alternate realities come into the picture, based on decisions that change the lives of people in the movie. It’s enough to say that Antara convinces Anay not to go outside on that fateful night. And the next day, Antara wakes up and finds out that her life is very different.

Antara is now a surgeon, not a nurse, at Blue Cross Hospital. Her nose ring is gone, and she has a shorter hairstyle. Her confusion turns to utter panic, when Antara goes to her daughter Avanti’s school to watch Avanti during swimming practice and finds out that Avanti has disappeared. Even worse: No one but Antara remembers or knew that Avanti existed. Vikas is still a manager at the same hotel, but when Antara goes there to talk to him, Vikas denies knowing Antara and says that he does not have a child.

Antara reports Avanti as a missing child, but since there are no records of Avanti, the police generally treat Antara as if Antara is mentally ill. Only one cop takes her desperate search for Avanti seriously: Deputy Commissioner of Police Anand (played by Pavail Gulati), who is about the same age as Antara. He offers to help Antara solve the mystery of why Avanti has disappeared and why many aspects of Antara’s life are very different from what she remembers before she woke up that day.

As the frantic mother Antara, Pannu gives an admirable performance that will keep viewers curious to see what will happen next. Kashyap’s direction of “Dobaaraa” maintains a suspenseful tone, while the film’s musical score by Shor Police skillfully conveys the right moods for every scene. The last third of the movie stumbles a bit with a plot development resembling a soap opera, but it doesn’t detract too much from the overall story.

Just like a lot of movies involving time traveling and alternate realities, based on people’s life-changing decisions, “Dobaaraa” has themes about fate versus free will. It’s a movie that will also make people think about how regret or gratitude about how one’s life has turned out can influence decisions that have ripple effects on one’s own life and the lives of others. “Dobaaraa” is more of a sci-fi thriller than a story heavily steeped in life philosophies. And therefore, it’s an entertaining but flawed story that thankfully doesn’t want to preach to its audience and lets viewers enjoy the ride as the story’s mystery is solved.

Balaji Motion Pictures released “Dobaaraa” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on August 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Shabaash Mithu,’ starring Taapsee Pannu

August 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Taapsee Pannu in “Shabaash Mithu” (Photo courtesy of Viacom18 Studios)

“Shabaash Mithu”

Directed by Srijit Mukherji

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and other parts of the world, from 1990 to 2017, the dramatic film “Shabaash Mithu” features a predominantly Indian cast of characters (with a few white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy, in this biopic of cricket star Mithali Raj.

Culture Clash: Mithali Raj faces sexism and other obstacles in her quest to become a professional cricket player. 

Culture Audience: “Shabaash Mithu” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Mithali Raj and movie star Taapsee Pannu, but even those fans might be disappointed at the heavy-handed way that this true story is told.

Taapsee Pannu (standing in center) in “Shabaash Mithu” (Photo courtesy of Viacom18 Studios)

It’s rare to have theatrically released biopics about Indian women who are sports pioneers, so it’s a shame that “Shabaash Mithu” terribly bungles the true story of cricket star Mithali Raj. The film is bloated and sappy, with bad acting and sloppy editing. And, at an overly long 156 minutes, “Shabaash Mithu” will test the patience of anyone expecting to see an inspirational story told in an engaging way.

Directed by Srijit Mukherji and written by Priya Aven, “Shabaash Mithu” takes place from 1990 to 2017. The movie drags on for so long, viewers will feel like they’ve aged along with the characters in the movie. One of the biggest flaws in “Shabaash Mithu” is that it takes too long in showing Raj’s childhood and repeating how she was underestimated as a cricket player (even by her family), simply because she was a girl. (“Shabaash Mithu” translates to “well done, sweet” in Gujarati.)

“Shabaash Mithu” opens in 1990, with a confusing creative choice by not showing Mithali but showing the girl who would become her best friend: Noorie (played by Kasturi Jagnam), who’s 8 years old in 1990, and who is the same age as Mithali. The movie’s opening scene is of Noorie playing soccer with some neighborhood boys. Her mother then lectures Noorie to look and act more like a girl.

Viewers then see that Noorie has a best friend named Mithali Raj (played by Inayat Verma), nicknamed Mithu. Mithali’s brother Mithun Raj (played by Nishant Pradhan), who’s about 11 or 12 years old, plays cricket. And it isn’t long before Noorie and Mithali want to play cricket with the boys. The girls are predictably taunted and shunned by the boys for wanting to be part of these cricket games.

Noorie is very outspoken, sassy, and can give as much trouble as she gets. When one of the boys is rude to her, she calls him “fatso,” and then she gets into a brawl with him and some of the other boys. Mithali is more hesitant and reserved, but she also feels like she has just as much of a right as the boys have a right to learn how to play cricket. Mithali keeps her cricket playing a secret from her family, because she knows they think playing cricket should only be for boys and men.

Mithali and her brother live with their mother Leela Raj (played by Devadarshini), father Dorai Raj (played Sameer Dharmadhikari), and paternal grandmother. These family members think that Mithun is the going to be the one in the family who could become a sports star. They’re in for a shock when they’re visited by a cricket coach named Sampath (played by Vijay Raaz), who says that he’s been watching Mithali play cricket, and he’s interested in having Mithali (not Mithun) train at the Reyes Cricket Academy for children.

Older brother Mithun is jealous and a little embarrassed that he wasn’t chosen for this well-known academy. Mithali’s parents and grandmother are skeptical that Mithali has what it takes to be a cricket star. After quite a bit of pleading, Coach Sampath convinces the family members to let Mithali join the Reyes Cricket Academy, where Noorie has also been accepted as a student. At Noorie’s suggestion, Mithali eventually cuts off her long braids so that her hair won’t get in the way of her cricket playing.

This part of Mithali’s childhood should have been covered in 10 minutes or less in the movie, but it drags out with scenes that take up about 30 minutes of the film. The movie then fast-forwards to 1997, where Mithali (played by Taapsee Pannu) and Noorie (played by Anushree Kushwaha) are 15 years old and still being coached by Sampath at the Reyes Cricket Academy. Both girls plan to eventually become professional cricket players.

Noorie and Mithali are still the best of friends, but their friendship is changed forever when 15-year-old Noorie announces that she’s getting married because Noorie’s father has arranged for her to get married. Therefore, Noorie has to quit the academy and quit cricket completely. Mithali is devastated and feels abandoned by Noorie, who was the person who got Mithali interested in cricket in the first place.

Mithali then gets selected for a national cricket camp for the women’s national cricket team of India. And once again, her brother Mithun is jealous. At the Women’s Cricket Board, Mithali is immediately hazed and bullied by the other team members because she’s a shy newcomer. In one such incident, Mithali becomes a target for bullying just because she asked for pain medication for menstrual cramps.

Mithali often gets dejected and sometimes feels like giving up, but Sampath advises her not to quit and to use her emotional pain as her strength in cricket games. He also tells her that many of the other women on the team come from backgrounds of hardship and that they use these feelings of anger and bitterness in their energy for the games against the opponents. Viewers won’t learn much about cricket playing skills, unless you think it’s fascinating when Sampath utters this trite advice to Mitahli in a “mind over matter” pep talk: “The most important position in batting is in your head.”

People who know about the real Mithali’s life story might already know that Sampath won’t always be there for Mithali as her mentor. When Mitahli founds out that Sampath will no longer be in her life, the expected melodrama ensues. Mithali is able to eventually win over her teammates when she’s suddenly named team captain in a very phony-looking scene.

One of the biggest problems with “Shabaash Mithu” is how it keeps repeating scenarios, long after the point was made the first time this scenario was shown. In addition to the long stretches of the movie showing Mithali getting bullied by her teammates (before she gets their respect), “Shabaash Mithu” overloads on repetition in showing how the men’s national cricket team of India has more fame and fortune than the women’s national cricket team of India. It doesn’t help that the women’s team is on a losing streak until Mitahli becomes the team captain.

“Shabaash Mithu” has too many similar scenes of the women’s team being ignored and disrespected at airports and other public places, while members of the men team (who just happen to be nearby) are cheered and celebrated. Mithali and her team are so disrespected, Indian cricket officals decide that the women’s team will have to wear discarded uniforms that were formerly worn by the men’s team, with the men’s last names still on the back of the shirts. It’s at this point in the movie that you know the women’s team will collectively rip off those shirts in a show of defiance and female pride.

There’s a lot of heavy-handed footage of Mithali being a women’s rights crusader and doing things like marching into offices and demanding to be respected by an all-male team of decision makers. All of these scenes are so hokey, but the awful dialogue and hammy acting just make it all worse. And so much of the movie just drags on and on and on, because the editing is so horrible. “Shabaash Mithu” is a pile-on of corny clichés with no self-awareness of how dreadful everything is and how disrespectful it is to the real Mithali Raj, who surely was not this vapidly dull in real life.

And where does this leave all the cricket playing? In “Shabaash Mithu,” the games are choppily edited to the point where it’s obvious that the actors don’t have real cricket skills. It isn’t until the last third of the film, which shows the 2017 Women’s World Cup finals, where the energy picks up to where it should have been all along in showing these cricket matches. But by then, it’s too little, too late. A lot of people who have the endurance to watch this long-winded mess until the very end will have emotionally checked out by then.

Viacom18 Studios released “Shabaash Mithu” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on July 15, 2022.

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