This is an excerpt from Nandini Ramnath’s weekly newsletter, Eye Spy. To receive it regularly in your inbox, sign up here.
The third Shah Rukh Khan release in a year revolves around an illegal immigration method called the “dunki”. Also known as “dunky”, which is a corruption of donkey, this mode of clandestinely smuggling people from the subcontinent to richer climes has resonance in India – and Pakistan.
Dunki has been directed by Rajkumar Hirani – who famously cast Khan in Munnabhai M.B.B.S. before Sanjay Dutt – and written by Hirani, Abhijat Joshi and Kanika Dhillon. A film on the same subject has already been made in Pakistan. Zinda Bhaag, directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, revolves around three Lahorians who want to get the hell out by any means possible.
Zinda Bhaag was released in 2013, years before the recent surge in Pakistanis trying to flee their homeland for better prospects. Why gloat over our less fortunate neighbours, who are escaping punishing inflation, political instability and religious fundamentalism?
According to a report on Scroll, the American think tank Pew Research Center found that Indians comprised the third-largest group of undocumented immigrants in the US as of 2021, just behind Mexicans and El Salvadorians. The study said that Indians made up 7.25 lakh of the 1.05 crore immigrants without proper paperwork.
In Zinda Bhaag, to “do the dunky” is a “very dangerous thing” and “a matter of life and death”. Yet, Khaldi, Taambi and Chitta don’t stop trying. The trio of friends flocks to the crimson-haired Puhlwan, a resourceful gangster who runs a betting racket.
Puhlwan cites the example of one Booba who managed to make it to Turkey, where he opened a successful restaurant named La Booba. It’s enough to get the three friends excited, but every path they take – including higher education – is blocked by obstacles. When a person flies out of Pakistan to Europe, immigration officials go so far as to look up his ancestry, a character mournfully says.
Zinda Bhaag is mostly in the comic vein, sobering up only in the end. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has composed the tunes, some of which spoof Hindi cinema’s escapist song-filming tradition.
Pakistan’s entry for the International Feature Film Oscar had Indian collaborators. Apart from Naseeruddin Shah as Puhlwan, the film had Indians on the crew – Shan Mohammed as one of the editors and Satya Rai Nagpaul as cinematographer.
Co-director Meena Gaur is a British national of Indian extraction. Gaur’s credits include the ZEE5 series Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam. Gaur has been tapped to direct a British television adaptation of Murder is Easy, based on the Agatha Christie bestseller of the same name.
Like its characters, Zinda Bhaag is available only on illegal websites. Meanwhile, Dunki is scheduled for a December 21 release. The Hindi-language comedy also stars Vicky Kaushal, Taapsee Pannu, Anil Grover, Boman Irani and Vikram Kochhar.
The teaser shows Khan’s character Hardy taking immigrants through a desert before introducing us to the four friends who want to move to the United Kingdom. Might they be inspired to tackle the “No visa, no problem” conundrum by the Zinda Bhaag experience?