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)

“Dunki”

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: ‘Sam Bahadur,’ starring Vicky Kaushal, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra

December 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Vicky Kaushal in “Sam Bahadur” (Photo courtesy of RSVP Movies)

“Sam Bahadur”

Directed by Meghna Gulzar

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various countries in Asia, from 1933 to 1973, the dramatic film “Sam Bahadur” (based on real events) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Sam Manekshaw rises through the ranks of the Indian Army while being involved in several political conflicts and international wars.

Culture Audience: “Sam Bahadur” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in seeing a biopic about a famous military leader, but the movie’s storytelling approach is stiff and overly sterile.

Fatima Sana Shaikh in “Sam Bahadur” (Photo courtesy of RSVP Movies)

“Sam Bahadur” is nothing but a “checklist” biopic that ultimately does a disservice to Sam Manekshaw. By making him look too good to be true, this erratically edited movie robs him of his humanity and depicts him as an unrealistically perfect hero. His relationships that were deep and meaningful in real life are rushed through in the movie and ultimately portrayed in a shallow manner.

Directed by Meghna Gulzar (who co-wrote the lackluster “Sam Bahadur” screenplay with Shantanu Shrivastava), “Sam Bahadur” (which means “Sam the Brave” in Hindi) takes place from 1933 to 1973, the years that Manekshaw was in the Indian Army. Born in 1914, in Amritsar, India, he began as one of the first cadets in the Indian Military Academy and rose through the ranks and eventually reached the highest level of the Indian Army, by being promoted to field marshal. He was the first person in India to achieve this military ranking of field marshal.

Vicky Kaushal gives a fairly competent performance as Manekshaw, but he’s not entirely convincing as an elder Manekshaw. (For the purposes of this review, the real Sam Manekshaw will be referred to as Manekshaw, while the character of Sam Manekshaw in the movie will be referred to as Sam.) Except for an early scene where cadet Sam is punished for being late after partying the night before at a pub with some friends , Sam is portrayed in the movie as someone who doesn’t do anything wrong and doesn’t make mistakes. It’s all very hokey and not believable.

The movie shows various political conflicts that Sam was involved with in his military career, such as India’s participation in certain wars. They include fighting in Burma during World War II (while India was under British rule); battling with Pakistan over control of Kashmir; and being in conflict against China in the Sino-Indian War. The combat scenes are very generic. And so are the conversations and performances in the movie.

Sam also experiences clashes with Indian government colleagues who view him as a threat to the power that they want. The movie gives half-hearted portrayals of the lingering effects of British colonialism in India. The story’s main throughline of showing India before and after British colonialism is Sam’s interaction through the years with David Cowan (played by Paul O’Neill), a British military official who knew Sam from when Sam was a somewhat rebellious cadet at Indian Military Academy to after Sam became a high-ranking military official. (India became independent from the United Kingdom in 1947.)

“Sam Badahur” has a very superficial depiction of Sam being severely wounded in Burma. After getting shot in the chest by a Japanese soldier, Sam is taken to an emergency medical tent, where a doctor asks him what happened. Sam jokes, “I got kicked by a mule.” His painful and difficult recovery from his near-fatal wounds is glossed over in the film. The movie makes it look like his recovery is quick and he had no real long-term effects from this trauma, which wasn’t the case in real life.

Sam’s courtship of his wife Silloo (played by Sanya Malhotra) is also rushed through the movie. Sam tells Silloo soon after meeting her that he’s going to marry her. A few minutes later in the movie, they’re married, with no real context of how their relationship developed.

Sam and Silloo become parents to two daughters, but hardly anything is shown in the movie about how these spouses are as parents. There a few scenes where Sam tells Silloo that he’s been ordered to be stationed at a military base where families aren’t allowed. However, the movie barely explores the strain that these separations put on their marriage.

Instead, “Sam Bahadur” is mostly a series of scenes where Sam is either on a battleground, a military base or in a conference room, with the occasional home visit. Various government officials and other colleagues are shuffled through Sam’s life, including Indian prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru (played by Neeraj Kabi) and Indira Gandhi (played by Fatima Sana Shaikh), who makes Sam her trusted ally. Sam is depicted as someone who always emerges triumphant whenever he encounters a jealous rival. The movie erases any personality flaws that he might have had in real life.

With a total running time of 148 minutes, “Sam Bahadur” certainly had the time to be a more insightful look into who the real Manekshaw was in his career and in his personal life. However, the movie’s uneven editing (some scenes are too short, while other scenes meander for too long) brings down the quality of “Sam Bahadur,” which is filled with uninteresting dialogue and bland depictions of fascinating, history-making people. Ultimately, “Sam Bahadur” gives Manekshaw and the people around him the “encyclopedia” treatment instead of the substantially engaging story that they deserved.

RSVP Movies released “Sam Bahadur” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Zara Hatke Zara Bachke,’ starring Vicky Kaushal and Sara Ali Khan

June 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sara Ali Khan and Vicky Kaushal in “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” (Photo courtesy of Maddock Films)

“Zara Hatke Zara Bachke”

Directed by Laxman Utekar

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Indore, India, the comedy/drama film “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” features an Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two spouses with no children want to move out of their very crowded family home to buy their own house, and they get involved in a real-estate scam where they get divorced in order to qualify to buy a house.

Culture Audience: “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a comedy/drama that drags on for too long about marital ups and downs.

Himanshu Kohli, Sara Ali Khan and Vicky Kaushal in “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” (Photo courtesy of Maddock Films)

“Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” is like watching a tiresome couple who can’t decide whether to break up or stay together. Would you fake a marital breakup to buy a house? That’s the weak concept of this long-winded comedy/drama about a married couple getting a divorce as part of a scam to buy their first home. The movie is a clumsy blend of sitcom gimmicks and melodrama. “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” means “go away a little” in Hindi.

Directed by Laxman Utekar, “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” (which takes place in Indore, India) was co-written by Maitrey Bajpai and Ramiz Ilham Khan. This misguided movie is an almost non-stop onslaught of people squawking and arguing over the marriage of Kapil Dubey (played by Vicky Kaushal) and his wife Somya Chawla Dubey (played by Sara Ali Khan), who both go to extreme measures to buy their own home. Kapil (who is a yoga teacher) and Somya (who teaches chemistry at a coaching institute) have no children together and are very unhappy with their crowded living situation of living with several of Kapil’s relatives.

Kapil and Somya want to move out and buy their own house as soon as possible. The problem is that they can’t afford to buy the house that they want, which has a cost ₹4.5 million, or about $55,000 in U.S. dollars in 2023. The couple’s sleazy real-estate agent Ban Das Ishwardas Sahay (played by Inaamulhaq) tells Kapil and Somya about a real-estate scheme that would allow the couple to buy the house: Get a legal divorce, buy the house, and then get married again.

Why is the divorce needed? As a married couple, Kapil and Somya don’t qualify for a loan, based on their combined household income. If they get divorced, they would each qualify for a housing lottery, based on their separate individual incomes. At first, Kapil is completely against the idea. Somya is more open to considering it. Eventually, she thinks this divorce should be the couple’s plan. Somya convinces Kapil that it’s the best and fastest way to get the house that they want.

Somya and Kapil enlist the help of an attorney friend named Manoj Bhagel (played by Himanshu Kohli) to help them with this divorce scheme. Manoj knows that Somya and Kapil are faking their breakup in order to get a house. The divorce paperwork is filed and the plan is set in motion. One of the movie’s big plot holes is that Manoj represents both Somya and Kapil in divorce court. Manoj is hyper, scatterbrained, and nothing but a buffoonish character.

The first time that Kapil and Somya appear before the judge (played by Atul Tiwari) who’s overseeing their divorce case, the judge is skeptical that the marriage needs to end. It just leads to Somya and Kapil going overboard in trying to convince everyone around them that they are a feuding former couple who should definitely get divorced. Kapil and Somya have over-the-top arguments. They also hire a woman named Mehjabeen (played by Srishti Ganguli Rindani) to pretend to be Kapil’s mistress, so that Somya can claim adultery as a reason for the divorce.

Even after Kapil and Somya get divorced, there are still obstacles to them getting the house. And then, the inevitable happens: Kapil and Somya start arguing for real. You know where this is going and how the movie is going to end. But the problem is that “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” makes everything so boring to watch. The movie’s very thin plot is stretched and padded out to a very bloated running time of 132 minutes. “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” also has an annoying sitcom-like musical score that is very intrusive and just makes the low-quality scenes even tackier.

It also doesn’t help that the couple at the center of “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” isn’t as charming as the filmmakers want viewers to believe. Somya is a horrendous teacher who berates, physically smacks, and degrades a young adult male student named Neeraj (played by Gourav Jariya), just because he was doodling a love note to someone in his notebook instead of taking notes from Somya’s lecture.

Neeraj has green-tinted hair. When Somya makes Neeraj the target of her wrath, she basically says that he won’t get any love with a face and hair like that, which is her way of calling him ugly. And when she smacks him, it crosses the line into an assault. In many countries, a teacher who is this abusive would be fired, but in “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke,” it’s treated as perfectly normal, and Somya faces no consequences for her awful actions.

Meanwhile, Kapil is kind of a wimp when it comes to standing up to his parents. His father Ved Prakash Dubey (played by Akash Khurana) rules the household with a domineering force, while Kapil’s mother Mamta Dubey (played by Anubha Fatehpuria) openly makes disdainful remarks about Somya’s Punjabi heritage. Adding to some of the family tension, Kapil is Hindu, while Somya is Muslim.

Other people in the household are Kapil’s uncle Purushottam “Puru” Mama (played by Neeraj Sood), who is Mamta’s brother; Puru’s wife Deepa Mami (played by Kanupriya Shankar Pandit); and Puru and Deepa’s precocious son, who’s about 7 or 8 years old. This child figures out long before most of the adults that Kapil and Somya are faking their breakup. And it should come as no surprise that Somya’s father Harcharan Chawla (played by Rakesh Bedi) and Somya’s mother Roshni Chawla (played by Sushmita Mukherjee) show up and insert themselves into the divorce drama.

A cliché-ridden movie about an argumentative gathering of family member wouldn’t be complete without someone in the clan going through a medical crisis. The mediocre performances in “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” don’t do anything up uplift the very formulaic and often annoying way that this movie was written and directed. The scenes in “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” are just like mush piled on top of each mush, adding up to almost nothing of substance.

Maddock Films released “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on June 2, 2023.

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