Violent new thriller tackles corruption in India

Although the film is set in a fictional Indian city, Patel highlights real social details. Cars pass children and whole families sleeping on the streets, Kid goes to sleep with scores of other workers in one room, some women characters are trafficked, another raped and killed. There’s political and religious unrest and corruption. Patel also gives a pivotal role to a gender non-conforming and transgender community (hijra), who in the film are shunned by some in society, and especially by the police.

“I guess the film’s a sort of Trojan horse,” he says. “Having spent most of my career travelling in and out of India shooting films, it is hard to ignore some of the stories that fill the columns of the newspapers there. I wanted to touch on some of that and maybe reach an audience that would never normally access such topics. But at the same time, it’s not just an Indian issue. Violence against women, police brutality, identity, those things are truly global things. This was just a great package for me to be able to talk about certain things.”

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Reaction to Monkey Man after its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival has been positive, with the word “audacious” frequently used to describe it. The filmmaker has spent at least six years working on the project from its announcement. Once financed, it was nearly cancelled because of Covid-19 in March 2020. Filming moved from India to a small Indonesian island; then the actor-director broke his hand in one of the first action sequences and had to receive medical treatment in Jakarta.

“At one point I’m thinking, ‘am I holding on for dear life or am I the one who’s my own worst enemy in this scenario?'” he says. “You’re trying to hold so much choreography in your head with all the stunt moves and the production design, and you always have a really intense plan that has to be thrown out on a daily basis, particularly as we were shooting during Covid. It was really a process of being nimble and adapting and pivoting all the time. As an actor, you have to be very open and instinctive. I don’t think I’m a particularly technical performer. I relied on those instincts when I was making the film.

“I wouldn’t shy away from giving the odd poor man’s Braveheart speech to the crew to get them riled up for the day.”

If Monkey Man comes across as a blend of influences, Dev Patel says he’s happy that it reflects his own upbringing. “I’ve found myself not really being represented on screen for what I am, which is the product of two different worlds. I grew up in the UK, listening to rap and grime tracks as well as Bollywood music. So, a cocktail of identity is truly for me what 2024 should look like, and also 2025 and 2026 and beyond. That’s what representation needs to look like for me, and that’s this film.”

Monkey Man is released in the UK and the US from 5 April.

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