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'Monkey Man': Will This Fervent Political Thriller Get a Release In India?

Patel uses Hindu mythology to criticize the weaponization of faith by Hindu nationalist forces.

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Following the frenzy over Amazon Prime Video’s series Tandav in 2021, veteran journalist and film critic Anupama Chopra decried the state of Indian censorship and called on creators to seek inspiration from Chinese and Iranian filmmakers, who deal with far more repression. She cited a Hollywood actor’s use of the term “Trojan Horse” art: provocative and subversive cinema cleverly shrouded beneath standard genre fare. It’s a dangerous, tricky tightrope that Bollywood filmmakers have largely decided to avoid altogether. One recent director who most embodies this genre in Hollywood is Jordan Peele, known for using the horror-thriller genre as a vessel to criticize racism in contemporary America, be it in Get Out, Us or Nope. Peele’s latest venture – this time as co-producer – attempts to achieve a similar alchemy.

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Written, directed, and produced by Dev Patel, Monkey Man is an unbelievably ambitious film. Not only was it made amid perilous circumstances – Covid-19 restrictions, Patel’s multiple broken bones, and a miniscule budget – but it seeks to fulfil multiple cinematic purposes.

At one level, it is a standard John Wick-esque revenge thriller, an unapologetic ode to action films like Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon, the Korean action thriller Oldboy, and the Indonesian action films Headshot and The Raid. It follows a protagonist named “Kid” (Dev Patel) who moonlights as a fighter in a dingy, sleazy underground boxing ring, before infiltrating an elite establishment to seek revenge from a man who ruined his life. Monkey Man’s action sequences are slick, stylish, and visceral, delivering an electrifying cinematic experience. But at another level, it also stitches these fervid fight sequences into a fervent political allegory.

Patel uses Hindu mythology to criticize the weaponization of faith by Hindu nationalist forces.

Dev Patel in a still from Monkey Man.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Patel – along with cowriters Paul Angunawela and John Collee – set the story in the fictional city of Yatna, a dystopian fusion of Mumbai and Batman’s Gotham City. “In this city,” Kid says, “the rich don’t see us as people.” Most scenes take place at night, and cinematographer Sharone Meir and editors Dávid Jancsó and Tim Murrell amplify the atmosphere of darkness, contrasting the grisley poverty of the city with the gaudy affluence of the elite. The ruling Hindu nationalist “Sovereign Party” is preparing for certain victory in an upcoming election, with a charismatic, scheming religious leader Yogi Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande) pulling the strings with a crooked police commissioner Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher). The elite establishment Kid infiltrates mirrors India’s ruling establishment, its elevator becoming a metaphor for social hierarchies, as Kid makes his way through the guards on the lower floors to reach Rana and finally, at the very top, Baba Shakti.

Patel uses Hindu mythology to criticize the weaponization of faith by Hindu nationalist forces.

Dev Patel in a still from Monkey Man.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Monkey Man contains thinly veiled references to several Indian political issues, from the disposession and massacres of adivasis to the weaponizing of religion for political gain.

While one could argue that these references are too vague and diluted to say something substantial, they actually undergird the emotional core of the story quite effectively without highjacking the narrative, like many “serious” sociopolitical dramas tend to do. Instead, Monkey Man retains the body of a bloody action thriller and infuses a political beating heart within it.

The film keeps intercutting between the present and kid’s childhood, where he grew up in India’s forests with his mother (Adithi Kalkunte) until a political movement helmed by Baba Shakti sought to seize the land claiming it to be a Hindu religious site. Conflicts with the forest dwellers ultimately culminated in a massacre led by Rana, who brutalized Kid’s mother before burning her dead body. With montages splicing real footage of anti-CAA protests and placards calling to “Save Indian Muslims” throughout the film, Monkey Man situates Kid’s burning anger in a subaltern struggle against the unholy alliance between crony capitalism and Hindu nationalism.

Patel uses Hindu mythology to criticize the weaponization of faith by Hindu nationalist forces.

A still from Monkey Man.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

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Patel further uses Hindu mythology to criticize the weaponization of faith by Hindu nationalist forces. “When I was a boy,” Kid shares in one scene, “my mother used to tell me a story of a demon king and his army that brought fire and terror to the land, until they faced the protector of the people: the white monkey.” Just as Hanuman helps rescue Sita from the clutches of Ravan, Kid takes down an evil establishment where a woman named Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala) is a sex worker.

Patel thus portrays the nexus of politicians, religious leaders, businessmen and policemen as the evil demon king, Ravan, pitting them against the protagonist, who is a rendition of Hanuman and a champion of the disenfranchized.

This way, Patel seeks to reclaim Hindu scripture from the Hindu Right, reframing faith as a source of empowerment for the oppressed, rather than a divisive tool for those in power to exploit.

Patel uses Hindu mythology to criticize the weaponization of faith by Hindu nationalist forces.

Sobhita Dhulipala in a still from Monkey Man.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

“For me this is about all the marginalized and all the voiceless coming together in this action film to challenge the status-quo,” Patel said in an interview with Jimmy Fallon. This idea also extends to the representation of an exiled hijra community led by Alpha (Vipin Sharma), who end up saving Kid when he, like any classic underdog, initially fails to achieve his mission, gets severely injured, and must hide from the police. The community nurses him back to life and enable his transformation into a beast capable of seeking the revenge he desires. This subplot represents how Monkey Man takes the formulaic revenge thriller template and weaves within it distinctly Indian elements and stands for the country’s most oppressed groups.

Herein lies the film’s greatest strength – how it excels as a breathtaking Hollywood action thriller with a brown protagonist front and center, while also using Hindu mythology as a narrative device to highlight injustices against India’s minorities.

Some might criticize Patel’s broad strokes depiction of disenfranchisement and conflation of multiple issues. But in such an atmosphere of censorship, where most cultural production in India echoes the ruling party’s Hindu nationalism themes, Monkey Man’s subversive gaze and seething rage make it a powerful piece of “Trojan Horse” cinema. No wonder Netflix, who has shelved several Indian projects due to government pressure, palmed the film off to Peele. But now, with its box office success –– it recovered its $10 million budget in its opening weekend itself –– and global critical acclaim, the Trojan Monkey Man is impossible to ignore. Will it get a release in India?

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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