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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Texas chapter.

Minor Spoilers Ahead

The first trailer I saw for Monkey Man made me nervous. As an Indian-American, I have grown accustomed to being represented on the big screen as a side character whose main role is to hack into banks or have my culture played for laughs. Many of the most popular shows I saw growing up, including Big Bang Theory and Jessie, used stereotypical Indian characters to make jokes about strict parents or “strange” traditions. With Beware of the Boys by Panjabi MC feat JAY-Z blasting in the back of the trailer, I wondered if this movie would just be another big joke about Indian culture that I had grown tired of hearing. Luckily, Dev Patel had other plans for his directorial debut. 

Dev Patel is the director, co-producer, co-screenwriter and star of Monkey Man. If you think that’s a lot of jobs, so does he. During an interview at South by Southwest, where the movie premiered, Patel talked about how over the course of the ten years he was working on this movie, the roles of director and writer were thrust onto him. Everyone he pitched the story to, including director Neill Blomkamp, saw Patel embodied the movie completely. The idea for the story had been inspired by Hanuman, a Hindu god who, among other things, represents the story of the underdog. Patel chose this story for his personal connection to Hanuman and so that he could write the representation he desperately wanted to see in Hollywood. Indian men, like Patel, often get stereotyped into the ugly sidekick or hacker in action movies so Patel shattered that barrier by writing an action movie that celebrates Indian culture (and stars one of the hottest Indian men ever). Because Patel had imagined so much of this movie in his head as his baby, it only made sense for him to take on all the roles. 

Dev Patel breathes life into the ancient legend of Hanuman and ignites the collective rage in an increasingly and deliberately silent world. While the violence hits hard, it’ll be the scars of systemic struggle that is the lasting pain.

KT Mahe

In this movie, Patel retold the story of Hanuman in a modern day India with themes of rising up against oppressions set by the caste system and religion. The story follows our unnamed protagonist, nicknamed Kid, as he struggles to go from a “revenger to an avenger” as said by Jordan Peele in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes. Kid is filled with anger at the system that broke his family, but struggles to fight against the system that has its neck on his throat. After he is forced to reckon with his past, he learns to channel his anger and realizes that more important than fighting for the past is fighting for the people still struggling in the present. The movie boldly comments on political issues in India around gender discrimination, Hindu-nationalism, and the caste system. While some people found these takes to be controversial, evidenced by the Central Board of Film Certification in India not yet approving it to be released in Indian theaters, Patel found them to be integral to the story from the very beginning. During his interview at SXSW, he discussed how this movie was an “Anthem of underdogs”, and it wasn’t going to shy away from controversial topics just because people may not like what he has to say. The movie portrays this arc of the underdog beautifully, and the story of rising up past barriers was paralleled in the production of the movie. 

All together, the Monkey Man took ten years to go from the initial concept, which looked like a monkey mask on a fighter in an underground boxing ring, to its release in theaters on April 5th 2024. The film started casing locations for filming in India in 2020, and were almost instantly shut down as Covid spread across the world. Pushing past this huge setback, the production found an island in Indonesia with a studio, and decided to create a Covid bubble on this island with 450 – 500 people working on the film. After the two week quarantines and losing people like the set designer, filming was finally ready to start until Patel broke his toes in training a few weeks before the first day. And then his hand on the first day of filming fight scenes. Clearly, it was a rough time. Rather than get a cast that they didn’t have the money to VFX out, Patel got a screw in his hand to hold everything together and a warning to take it easy, which he didn’t even pretend to heed. The movie was jam-packed with dynamic and creative fight scenes, so it was obvious why Patel thought he didn’t have time to take off. Filming continued to be a struggle as they dealt with the loss of a member of the team, threats of shutting down, and a very thin budget. Patel recounts the story of how they only had two breakaway tables so after each scene, they would look for every piece of the table so they could glue it all back together and then do it again. Patel truly gave his all to this movie, including his phone which got used to film a car crash scene (and the footage made it into the final cut). 

I’m not a religious man, but sign me up to that spiritual community that cheers on shirtless Dev Patel as he works the bag.

Adam, Letterboxd review

Even after the filming wrapped up, the movie struggled to find its way to audiences. Netflix had bought the distribution rights, but decided to sell it for 10$ million dollars. As Patel was slowly accepting that his movie, a movie that he had, quite literally, put his blood, sweat, and tears into may never see the light of day, Jordan Peele swooped in with MonkeyPaw productions to save the day. Peele described this movie as exactly what they were looking for at MonkeyPaw, an innovative and profound movie that raises the standard for movies in Hollywood. Peele pushed for the movie to have a theatrical release with Universal, and thank god he did because this movie was made for the big screen. 

As a director, Patel drew inspiration from many of the past people he worked with but this movie also channels his love for Bruce Lee that started at an early age. Patel described how he was tired of modern action movies feeling static and predictable, so he took his movie as a chance to demonstrate what is possible for an action movie. The movie had evident intentionality while filming, as can be seen with the pacing. Fast action sequences are balanced with more slow steady conversations to show the characters growth through the movie. Not only that, but the movie was shot so that the audience would feel like a person in every room. Patel wanted to make the action feel like you are being beat up which meant keeping the camera moving with the characters and having it shake when a punch landed. He also switched in and out of different points of view during fight scenes to keep the audience present in the movie. Patel said about filming the movie “this shouldn’t be me vs the bad guy, this should be 3 of us dancing together”. All the fight scenes were also very creative. There were many improvised weapons and crazy deaths that had me cringing from the imagined pain. The movie did not shy away from gory or gross scenes, but it also kept true to its deeper meaning. 

“I think the action genre has sometimes been abused by the system. I wanted to give it real soul, real trauma, real pain … And I wanted to infuse it with a little bit of culture.”

– Dev Patel

Ultimately, the movie is about rising up against oppression and fighting for more than oneself. Our protagonist finds himself directionless and fighting a losing battle in the beginning, but learns how to climb his way up. The movie also shows other oppressed characters following the protagonist in his fight, like sex-workers and the Hijra community. The Hijra community is a group of people who follow the third gender and are often discriminated against in India because people perceive them as “different” or “abnormal”. This movie not only brings Hijra into the limelight, something Indian cinema rarely does, but shows them as a positive force in Kid’s story. There are no damsels in this movie either, as it makes sure to give characters the ability to forge their own path. All in all, the movie takes great strides in bringing much needed representation to the big screen. 

I could ramble on about Monkey Man for three more pages, but I’ll spare you the rant. What I will say is this movie is important. Not just because I am partial to it as a huge Dev Patel fan, but because it is different from what Hollywood is used to and it’s not apologizing for that. The innovative filming techniques, the focus on representation, and the bold cultural commentary all tie into a simple message: we are here and we will not stay silent.

Hi there! I am a sophomore Biology major at UT Austin. I am super interested in research and science, but I also love writing about my life and what I see around me. I love cat videos, weird science facts, and cooking new food. Thanks for reading!