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Dev Patel fuses action, cultural commentary in ‘Monkey Man’

Film addresses multitude of issues with realism, emotional weight

The film intertwines elements of India’s culture and structural social issues with the universality of confronting grief.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
The film intertwines elements of India’s culture and structural social issues with the universality of confronting grief. Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In “Monkey Man,” Dev Patel’s highly anticipated directorial debut, Bollywood and Hollywood action stylization are unified and transformed into a refreshingly new story. Quick, vibrant and often claustrophobic shots are paired with sweeping views of the cityscape as the story of a monkey-masked fighter unfolds. “Monkey Man” infuses the action genre with a unique cultural richness, extensive social commentary and themes of overcoming grief. 

The film opens with a flashback of Kid (Dev Patel) as a child. Disguised under a monkey mask — inspired by his mother’s tales of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god — Kid finds a way to make money by losing fights at an underground boxing club. Unsure what exactly Kid’s motivation or purpose is, we watch him steal Queenie Kapoor’s (Ashwini Kalsekar) wallet and talk himself into a job at her luxury brothel. Utilizing wit, bribes and charm, Kid moves up within the brothel, working in proximity to Rana (Sikander Kher), a man he clearly dislikes. Throughout this narrative, images of a preachy, untrustworthy guru by the name of Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande) are showcased on billboards and television screens. 

Right off the bat, “Monkey Man” embodies the hustle culture of India in its cinematography through head-spinning camera work. When Kid spikes Rana’s cocaine, the resulting police chase scene recalls the infinitely capable hero surrounded by the lively music and dance-like choreography characteristic of Bollywood films. Concurrently, the chase produces a Hollywood-like spectacle and a certain depth of realism in Kid’s rage, though the feeling’s origin is still cloudy at this point of the film. 

Kid finds himself rescued by Alpha (Vipin Sharma), the keeper of a temple that serves as a safe congregational space for trans women. With Alpha’s aid, Kid experiences a hallucinogenic trip that forces him to confront the trauma of his mother’s death. 

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Finally, the periodic imagery of Baba gains some significance: When Kid was a child, Baba enlisted the corrupt police chief Rana to displace the villagers in Kid’s home and acquire the land. Kid’s mother is able to protect him and ends up beaten, raped and killed by Rana who sets her body on fire. 

The film intertwines elements of India’s culture and structural social issues with the universality of confronting grief. The montage of Kid working out is reminiscent of any classic action movie, prepping the audience for impending climactic revenge. Kid not only undergoes an emotional reckoning where he fights for the marginalized — highlighted when he earns a win in the boxing ring to raise enough money to save a temple — he also comes to terms with his trauma, using it as motivation to avenge his mother’s death. 

Patel has spoken about the numerous issues that almost halted the production of this project: the COVID-19 pandemic, several injuries sustained by Patel during action scenes and Netflix’s distributional uncertainty on how Indian audiences would receive the film, to name a few. In fact, one scene was even filmed on Patel’s own cell phone. That grit and passion vigorously permeate “Monkey Man,” immediately capturing audiences’ attention and begging for their investment in everything that the film is. 

This investment is partly due to the sheer volume of themes, issues and emotions addressed in “Monkey Man.” From challenges Indian trans women face and land displacement to abuse of religious power, sexual exploitation and corruption, one might think “Monkey Man” is attempting to do too much. Instead, Patel imbues the action genre’s beauty and entertainment factor with newfound depth, realism and emotional weight in tackling issues rarely confronted so pointedly in Indian cinema. Yes, “Monkey Man” aggressively entertains, but the film also enlightens.

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