5 May 2024

Monkey Man: Dev Patel’s directorial debut pulls no punches

| Rama Gaind
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Monkey Man movie scene

Dev Patel plays the title role and is known as Kid in Monkey Man, a fierce revenge saga. Photos: Supplied.

Audacious it may be, but Monkey Man makes a confident cultural statement and delivers a bold new vision in an ambitious project.

Actor and filmmaker Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Lion, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) makes his directorial debut with this action thriller, which he co-wrote with Paul Angunawela and John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). He also stars in it.

Steeped in Indian mythology, this is a fierce revenge saga, set in a gritty underground fight circuit.

Patel has come a long way since achieving global recognition for his role in Danny Boyle’s 2008 Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, which was based on the 2005 novel Q & A by Indian author Vikas Swarup.

Monkey Man is immersed in Hindu folklore about one man’s quest for vengeance against the corrupt leaders who murdered his mother and continue to systemically victimise the poor and powerless.

Patel plays the primary character known as Kid, an anonymous young man who ekes out a meagre living in an underground fight club where, wearing a gorilla mask, night after night, he is beaten bloody for cash by more popular fighters.

Monkey Man is an impressive feat, fascinating as it draws you into a disconcerting world where you will feel exhilarated and furious, but astonished as well. It also addresses corruption and discrimination in India.

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Set in a fictional city named Yatana, in contemporary India, it’s where power and money contaminate. Where the poor are not just imperceptible, they are considered to be less than human and regarded as being little more than animals.

After years of suppressed rage, Kid discovers a way to infiltrate the enclave of the city’s sinister elite. As his childhood trauma boils over, his mysteriously scarred hands unleash an explosive campaign of retribution to settle the score with those who took everything from him.

He manages to wheedle his way into the bottom rung of a high-end brothel callously managed by Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar). His rise through the ranks – with the assistance of comedy-relief gangster Alphonso (Pitobash) – inches him closer to the target of retribution, Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande): a callous, unethical spiritual guru with immeasurable political influence and seemingly bottomless pockets.

Monkey Man is inspired by the legend of the monkey-faced deity Hanuman, an icon embodying nobility, strength and courage, whose legend is narrated to Kid by his mother in the film’s prologue.

two men in movie scene

Patel (left) and comedy-relief gangster Pitobash in Monkey Man.

Born in Harrow, London, Patel is of Gujarati-Indian descent. He achieves what he set out to do: give the action genre “real soul, real trauma, real pain … And I wanted to infuse it with a little bit of culture”. He does that – and more.

“I’m a huge fan of the action genre and of Bruce Lee,” Patel said. “I’ve been waiting to tell a story that has more weight in it, infuse it with a dose of culture, real emotion. There were stories my grandfather told me from old mythological epics, similar to stories like Icarus and even the Superman comics, and I thought we can take those and apply them to this. Emotion as a subject is universal.”

Spectacular fight and chase scenes are featured in this small-budget film that’s been 10 years in the making. Sharone Meir’s incredible cinematography draws you into the action.

Patel has had to overcome several hurdles making this movie, including breaking his hand and a toe and filming through the COVID-19 pandemic. Action sequences nail that feeling of desperation – for triumph.

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Music by the “amazing” Australian composer Jed Kurzel provides a fresh soundscape. However, there’s an irony about some of the background score because of the contrasts created by using the music of Boney M and everything from hip-hop and Indian classical, watching award-winning Indian composer and tabla (pair of hand drums) player Ustad Zakir Hussain, 73, display his talents on screen, to new underground rappers in Mumbai.

Monkey Man is not just about violence and fighting, but is a seething commentary on social class, the relationship of a mother and son and loss. Fortunately, an affinity appeases the need to connect with the director.

“This is about all the marginalised and all the voiceless coming together to challenge the status quo. There is so much culture, but it’s good fun.”

Through Monkey Man, Patel celebrates his heritage, taking the ugly and vibrant bits, and adds it into a film with real heart.

“It’s an anthem of the underdog – obviously it’s me.”

Monkey Man, directed by Dev Patel, from Universal Pictures, screening in cinemas

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