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: ‘Mili’ (2022), starring Janhvi Kapoor, Sunny Kaushal and Manoj Pahwa

November 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Janhvi Kapoor in “Mili” (Photo courtesy of Zee Studios)

“Mili” (2022)

Directed by Mathukutty Xavier

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Dehradun, India, the dramatic film “Mili” features an all-Indian cast representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A few days before she is supposed to move to Canada for a nursing job, a 24-year-old woman, who has recently become estranged from her widower father, gets accidentally trapped in the freezer room of the fast-food restaurant where she works. 

Culture Audience: “Mili” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching suspenseful survival thrillers with meaningful messages about love and trust.

Manohar Teli, Rajesh Jais, Manoj Pahwa and Sunny Kaushal in “Mili” (Photo courtesy of Zee Studios)

“Mili” is a capable 2022 Hindi remake of the 2019 Malayalam film “Helen,” which are both dramas about a young woman who accidentally gets trapped in a restaurant’s freezer room. “Mili” takes its time to get to the suspenseful part of the movie, but it’s worth the wait. The acting performances are very good, while the movie’s editing and musical score skillfully increase the tension. “Mili” is the type of film where viewers will probably be able to predict how everything is going to end, but the movie has enough twists and turns to keep audiences on edge to see what will happen next.

Directed by Mathukutty Xavier and written by Ritesh Shah, “Mili” takes place in Dehradun, India, where 24-year-old Mili Naudiyal (played by Janhvi Kapoor) lives with her widower father Niranjan Naudiyal (played by Manoj Pahwa), who works as an insurance agent. (“Mili” was actually filmed in Dehradun and Mumbai.) Mili is an only child who is a graduate of nursing school. She works part-time as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant named Doon’s Kitchen (which is located inside a shopping mall), and she attends International English Language Testing System (IELTS) classes.

Mili is learning English because she wants move to Canada, where she plans to continue her nursing training and find a job as a nurse. In the beginning of the movie, Mili has already made up her mind to move to Canada, where nurses are paid a much higher salary than what Mili could earn as a nurse in India. Niranjan is not happy about Mili’s decision to move to another country so far away, but there’s nothing he can really do about it. Mili says if she stayed in India, she wouldn’t earn enough money to get herself out of her student loan debt in a reasonable period of time.

Mili’s mother died when Mili was a very young child, and her father has not remarried. And so, Mili has spent most of her life living in a household with just herself and her father. Mili and Niranjan have a very close and loving father/daughter relationship overall. The only things they disagree about are where Mili will live (her father wants her to live close to him in India) and Niranjan’s habit of smoking cigarettes. Mili sternly lectures him that he needs to quit smoking for his health, but Niranjan sometimes sneaks in some smoking when he thinks Mili won’t find out.

Mili has been keeping her own secret from Niranjan that will put their relationship to the test: Mili has been dating a guy who’s unemployed, has a history of violence, and is from a different caste. His name is Sameer Kumar (played by Sunny Kaushal), and he’s about 10 years older than Mili. Sameer and Mili met at a hospital where she worked when Sameer was admitted to the hospital for injuries he sustained during a fight. Mili hasn’t told her father about Sameer because she knows that her father wouldn’t approve of her dating Sameer.

Mili and Sameer’s relationship has been turbulent with arguments that don’t turn violent, but it’s implied that these arguments are emotionally hurtful enough that Mili is on the verge of breaking up with Sameer. In the beginning of the movie, Sameer begs Mili to forgive him for something that he did that happened before this story takes place. Mili refuses to forgive Sameer and doesn’t really want to talk to him.

Sameer shows signs of having a nasty temper when he happens to see Mili walking down a street, and he notices that a rickshaw driver (played by Lovekush Kundu) has whistled at Mili. An enraged Sameer lunges at the rickshaw driver and roughs him up after Mili has walked away. Sameer yells at the driver that the woman he was whistling at is Sameer’s girlfriend and that the driver is being disrespectful when he whistles at women in that way.

Sameer’s attack isn’t enough to severely injure the driver, but it’s enough to cause intimidation to the driver, who fearfully says that he’s sorry and backs away from Sameer. This assault will make viewers wonder how much of a loose cannon Sameer is and if he can be trusted. Mili and some other people throughout the movie have those same doubts. Is Sameer going to redeem himself?

Sameer is so desperate for Mili’s forgiveness that he shows up at Doon’s Kitchen while she’s working and demands to talk to her. Sameer won’t leave until she gives him a chance to show her how sorry he is for whatever caused the argument. Eventually, Mili relents and agrees to talk to Sameer, who knows that Mili is going to move to Canada in the near future. Sameer has some news of his own: He got a job in Delhi, and he will be moving there the following night.

It’s a shock to Mili, but she figures that Sameer’s relocation is for the best, since they were close to breaking up, and they were going to be living a long distance from each other anyway. Mili agrees to Sameer’s invitation to go on one last date with him before he leaves the next night to go to Delhi. After her work shift ends, Mili and Sameer go on his motorcycle to a local nightclub/bar, where they both drink some alcohol and stay out very late. Sameer drinks more alcohol than Mili does and probably shouldn’t be operating any vehicle when they both leave the bar. Sameer offers Mili a ride back to her home.

But trouble comes when Sameer and Mili are riding on the motorcycle and are stopped on the street by an aggressive police sub-inspector named Satish Rawat (played by Anurag Arora), who rudely asks them why they are out on the street so late at night. From the beginning, Satish’s attitude is that he wants to find a reason to detain or arrest Sameer and Mili. Satish begins to interrogate them, by asking their names, where they came from, and where they’re going.

Satish scolds Mili by telling her that he thinks she’s a “loose woman” who shouldn’t be on the back of a man’s motorcycle so late at night. As soon as Satish finds out that Mili and Sameer just left a nightclub/bar, he demands that Sameer take a breathalyzer test. Sameer fails the test, so he and Mili are quickly detained and taken to the police station where Satish works.

Mili feels humiliated and even more ashamed when her father has to come to the police station to pick her up. Mili won’t be facing any criminal charges, but Sameer will likely be charged with driving while intoxicated. When Niranjan arrives at the police station and finds out what happened, it’s how he also finds out that Mili has been dating Sameer. Before Mili and her father leave the police station, Satish lectures Niranjan and Mili for not doing a better background check on Sameer, who gets bailed out of jail later.

Naranjan is so angry at Mili that he stops talking to her. Mili begs for his forgiveness but he completely shuns her. Feeling hurt, rejected and isolated, Mili goes to work the next evening at Doon’s Kitchen, where she is working the last shift for the night. Her cranky boss Sudheer Malkoti (played by Vikram Kochhar), who is distracted by his marital problems, reprimanded her a few days earlier, when he blamed Mili and another employee for letting 10 boxes of food get destroyed by an undetected rat in the stock room.

After the restaurant is closed for the night, Mili clocks out and is about to leave the restaurant when two co-workers named Ladoo (played by Raghav Binani) and Vipul (played by Deepak Simwal) suddenly show up with some boxes of frozen food. Vipul and Ladoo ask her to help them, because Ladoo and Vipul forgot to put these boxes in the freezer earlier. Ladoo and Vipul don’t want Doon’s Kitchen manager Sudheer to know that they were late in delivering the boxes, so Ladoo and Vipul ask Mili to carry the boxes herself into the freezer room (which is in the back of the restaurant), and she reluctantly agrees.

Ladoo and Vipul then clock out and leave the restaurant, while Sudheer is in another part of the restaurant. When Sudheer goes into his office, he sees on his computer that all of the employees have clocked out for the day, so he thinks he’s alone in the restaurant. Unbeknownst to him, Mili is in the freezer room. She has left the freezer room door slightly open, but not wide enough for Sudheer to see her inside the room.

Sudheer sees the door is slightly open, looks annoyed that an employee left the door open, and shuts and locks the freezer room door behind him. He then locks up the restaurant, and he leaves to go home for the night. Mili is now trapped in the freezer room and is completely alone in the restaurant.

And unfortunately, Mili left her phone and her purse in another room outside the locked freezer. The freezer room does not have an emergency alarm or a way to be unlocked from the inside. Mili is also wearing a short-sleeved shirt. And the temperature will eventually drop to freezing temperatures that can cause hypothermia and eventually death if she doesn’t get out of the room in time.

Mili’s entrapment in the freezer room doesn’t happen until about 45 minutes into this 127-minute movie. For some viewers, that might be too long for the movie to become suspenseful. And some scenes in Mili’s backstory weren’t really important and could have been cut from the movie. However, it was necessary to show what Mili’s life was like before she went through this ordeal, in order to understand other things that happen in the desperate search to find her.

When Niranjan sees that Mili has not come home when she was expected, he immediately tries to find out what happened. Niranjan knows that Mili is a very responsible person who sticks to a routine. He knows something is very wrong about why Mili didn’t come home that night without contacting him and because she’s not replying to his phone messages.

Sameer was on a bus to Delhi that night, but just by coincidence, he changed his mind and got off the bus. When he finds out that Mili has gone missing, he helps in the search, but he falls under suspicion for her disappearance. Sameer is eventually asked why he didn’t go to Delhi that night, and he says it’s because he changed his mind about taking the job there.

Doon’s Kitchen manager Sudheer is questioned about Mili’s whereabouts, but he insists that Mili left the restaurant because he saw that she had clocked out for the night. It’s why the people looking for Mili think she might be somewhere else during this frantic search. Certan prejudices that people had before Mili disappeared end up complicating matters and actually make things worse by causing mistrust and miscommunication.

In addition to Niranjan and Sameer, other people who help in looking for Mili are her best friend Hasleen (played by Hasleen Kaur), who also works at Doon’s Kitchen; Niranjan’s friend/neighbor Mohan Chachu (played by Rajesh Jais); an unnamed shopping-mall security guard (played by Niranjan Asrani); police inspector Ravi Prasad (played by Sanjay Suri), who is Satish’s immediate supervisor; and police officer Mukesh Singh (played by Manohar Teli), who is as compassionate as his sub-inspector boss Satish is cold-hearted. Rather than helping the investigation, Satish hinders it in many ways because of his selfishness, incompetence and personal biases.

“Mili” (which is being advertised as “based on true events”) can get melodramatic at times, but the movie never strays too far from reality. Kapoor’s empathetic portrayal of Mili anchors the film in a convincing way that will make audiences completely root for Mili in her fight for survival. All of the other cast members give solid performances in their roles.

The movie’s musical score by Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” composer A.R. Rahman is a tremendous asset in immersing viewers of “Mili” into every emotion felt by the principal characters. Even with a somewhat slow start, “Mili” ends up delivering an overall entertaining thrill ride that will certainly make people think twice about walking into a freezer room without safety precautions.

Zee Studios released “Mili” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on November 4, 2022.

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