Saturday 6 January 2024

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison says its worthwhile tracking down the Hindi blockbuster DUNKI (Rajkumar Hirani, India, 2023)

Time was when Hollywood got stick for presenting a glamour version of life, with all the boring bits left out - the world of George Sidney. Well, the same contempt has been heaped on Bollywood for the much same reason. From this distance it’s hard to make a judgment, though Indian (that’s Hindi and all the rest) films are said to be occupying one in four of Australia’s release slots now. People must be going to them, because they keep on showing up. It would be interesting to know how many and where. There were three of us attending on the last night of the new Sha Rukh Khan movie Dunki during its one week run at Event Cinemas in George Street.

Back in the late nineties, before MTV impacted their industry, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge/Brave Heart Takes the Bride ran for three years, where a fortnight used to be considered good.  Lagaan hit the festivals. Yash Raj Productions and Sha Rukh Khan were regular highlights of our movie-going. Nice to find they are still in place.

Dunki has the old damp eyed sentimentality, knockabout comedy, bright colour and exoticism all set at the top of the dial ... and the big musical number, a spectacular affair featuring the Union Jack, comes more than a half hour in when we’ve had time to accept the film’s tempo. I was relieved to see the formula still played, though at 160 minutes it does hang about too long after SRK’s stout court room defense of Mother India. On top of this comes a detailed analysis of immigration. Our hero’s “When the British came to our country no one demanded they speak Hindi!” gets muttered approval.

Shah Rukh Khan, Dunki

The plot of Dunki has a flashback structure. The mature Indian immigrants, who have made a place in Britain, are stirred at the news that their idol Hardy/SRK is coming. We see him distracted from the finish line in his Laltu senior citizen’s athletics event. Our curiosity is caught as we try to figure out the circumstances that produced this situation.

Back in the Punjab, Hardy showed up to return the radio of a fellow soldier, who had rescued him on the battlefield, and our hero found himself teaching wrestling to the dead man’s sister, the rather fetching Taapsee Pannu – nice scene. With fellow nationals they find themselves needing to make their fortunes in Britain, represented by seeing a soppy romance film where the lead proposes to his intended in front of Big Ben. The monument will become an effective motif in the film – background to a human statue routine or reflected on the window of a passing car.

The wannabees are told of the three ways to enter – marriage, study or political asylum. Comic routines in Boman Irani’s incompetent language school prepare them with a lavatory song for their “Student Veejaar.” It leads to a plausible self-immolation with a handy kerosene stove. Not uncharacteristic for these, I still remember Lehk Tandon’s cheery 1962 musical Professor building to Shammi Kapoor’s mother getting stoned by the locals.

The situation comes down to Dunki, the donkey route of people smuggling. At the length of this one, there’s time for what would take up a complete film itself – striking effects work where a real bus metamorphoses into a toy on a map, circuitous border crossings, avoiding watchtower gun fire by walking under water and confronting a murderous Iranian patrol officer.

Disillusion faces the group at the end of the trip. Dog walking locals don’t understand why they need to be told they are in Britain. An understanding judge is unable to endorse their good will. Of the many hazards they encounter, the sham marriage to a doper in a giant, so nice church is particularly vivid. When we get to the present day the group find themselves forbidden to re-enter their native land and in the hands of another Dunki immigration agent. The film comes up with a sting in the tail documentary sequence which will upset preconceptions.

The scripting is unpredictable and clever and the staging first class. This is a top of the line item. Writer-director-editor Rajkumar Hirani is one of their industry’s key figures. His Three Idiots got some action abroad but I was more taken with his P.K. and Muna Bhai MBBS films. The new entry may not be his best but it benefits from the imposing presence of Khan at the head of a strong cast.

Forget about the celebrated canon. It’s instructive to remember that most of the several millions of fans who think Shah Rukh Khan is the world’s greatest star have never heard of Robert Bresson or Pedro Almodovar any more than their critic and festival programmer admirers accept SRK. It’s simple minded (and racist) to automatically believe they are wrong … and it cuts the viewer off from some of the most involving work being done in this troubled period of film making.

It will be an effort to track down Dunki in our erratic local distribution scheme but it is a great way to bring the situation into perspective.

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