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On the Borderline

Courtesy photo

Dunki (2023)

There is no star in Western cinema comparable to Shah Rukh Khan. He is an action hero who can sing and dance; he can laugh at himself (which is even rarer than having a sense of humor); his movies are blatantly political while also being jolly entertainments; and most surprisingly of all, he is willing to be vulnerable on screen. He even cries without a drop of the horrible no-homo attitude so pervasive in American cinema when men express any feelings at all. In “Dunki” he goes even further, in playing a man making a visa-free journey from India to Britain, showing the hellish indignities of the awful trip; and it’s done with a sense of respect that is simply unimaginable in Western cinema. “Dunki” – a slang word meaning the journey illegal immigrants take – is a cheerful yet vicious attack on international borders generally and British immigration policy specifically. The fact that it got a British release is testament to Mr. Khan’s power.

When such journeys are shown in Western movies, they are almost always either poverty porn enacted by unknowns, or set dressing as the leading characters save the day. In the current climate it is simply impossible to imagine an A-list American actor being willing to portray a character in this position who endures what Mr. Khan’s ex-soldier Hardy does here. But this being a Hindi film, there’s plenty of lightness to sugar the pill. The movie is primarily a prolonged flashback to how Hardy met a sparky waitress named Manu (Taapsee Pannu) whose family have lost their ancestral home due to a cascade of ill luck Hardy was a part of. But Manu and her friends Buggu (Vikram Kochhar) and Balli (Anil Grover) have a plan to cope with all their misfortunes: get to London by any means necessary, where they’ll earn enough cash to solve everything. Since they already speak some English – “let’s rock the party, baby” and “get lost, you piece of shit” – it will obviously all be plain sailing. But Hardy convinces them all to join an English class, where they meet Sukhi (Vicky Kaushal), whose reasons for needing to get to Britain are much more serious. But even as Hardy falls in love with Manu and Balli is granted a visa there are many storms on the horizon.

Eventually a visa-free journey is decided upon, which involves some serious violence, played straight, in the Iranian desert. On arrival in Britain the streets are absolutely not paved with gold. Any immigrant of any legality can relate to the harsh welcome found in a strange land where the customs are unknown, the only work you can find is awful, and the rules are twisted to your disadvantage. But eventually Hardy ends up in an English courtroom, and later finds himself with Manu and the others in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (of all places), in order to enable an ending of the purest schmaltz. This is a movie where a character (an English teacher played by Boman Irani) is hit in the face with someone’s sandal, and reacts by saying, “You hit my head, but you touched my heart.” But director Rajkumar Hirani, who also cowrote the script, is deadly serious in his contempt for the hypocrisy of the British immigration system, especially as it applies to its former colonies. Many spoonfuls of sugar, such as the song and dance numbers, help the righteous anger go down.

It feels very brave, to take some of the most awful aspects of the human experience – not limited to illness, suicide, being shot at, threatened with rape, as well a character billed as “junkie groom” – and wrap them in a light-hearted bow. But people would rather laugh than cry, even if comedy is a thousand times harder than tragedy. And no one has become a star of Mr. Khan’s calibre without knowing how to give people what they want. “Dunki” manages to combine wish fulfillment and polemic in a warm-hearted package that knows what it wants. Indian cinema in Britain is starting to move from a Bollywood niche into more mainstream channels, meaning “Dunki” couldn’t be delivering its message at a more auspicious time.


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