Three friends who have made the decision to flee their village in Punjab initially attempt to reach the United Kingdom through legal routes. A fourth person becomes their mentor, lighthouse and travelling companion. Because he’s played by Shah Rukh Khan, Rajkumar Hirani’s Dunki stays somewhat on course.
The movie’s title is a corruption of the word donkey, which describes the smuggling of humans to healthier economies. Dunki is more heehaw than ha ha hee hee. Broad comedy and tear-jerking moments – Hirani’s strengths – are largely missing from his screenplay, written along with Abhijat Joshi and Kanika Dhillon.
Hardy (Khan) arrives in Punjab’s Laltu village, where he meets Manu (Taapse Pannu), Balli (Anil Grover) and Buggu (Vikram Kochhar). Each of them has a reason to move to London. Hardy, a former Army officer, doesn’t really need to leave, but his love for Manu encourages him to abandon home and hearth.
The journey to foreign climes winds past English language classes run by Geetu (Boman Irani). Just like nobody in Dunki has a serious-sounding name, the 161-minute movie is frivolous about the reasons for widespread immigration from India and shallow about what awaits the Laltu quartet once they reach the land of the Big Ben.
In the absence of compelling character arcs or a halfway realistic depiction of the complications involved in transporting humans across borders, the movie never travels below the surface. The cursory exploration of the travails of immigrants is too generalised to have an emotional impact.
The strangely anodyne film is briefly enlivened by Khan’s dimpled charm and spirited turns by Taapsee Pannu, Vikram Kocchar and Anil Grover. The actors’ collective enthusiasm is a life-saver – their characters are so clueless that they might not survive a journey to Ludhiana, let alone London. For all his Army training, Hardy is a bit smarter, but only just.