Monkey Man Review [Spoilers!]

May 8, 2024

Monkey Man is the directorial debut of Dev Patel, who is well known for his performances in Lion and Slumdog Millionaire. In a project that started pre-Covid, was abandoned by Netflix, and then picked up by Universal and Jordan Peele, the British-Indian star weaves in political, religious, and social tensions to tell the story of Kid, a man who lost his mother as a young child due to state and religious violence, with him now seeking revenge against the people who orchestrated her death. Patel utilizes mythical references, brilliant cinematography, and music-infused and rhythm-driven scenes to critique institutions that abuse their power and convey the strength of collective action. 

The film opens with a Hindu myth in which the monkey-god Hanuman, as a young child, mistakes the sun for a mango and swallows it, resulting in all his powers being stripped as punishment. The religious allusions to Hanuman and the Hindu epic the Ramayana continue throughout the film. The main character, referred to as Kid, has multiple parallels to Hanuman (including the name Monkey Man) and the myth in the opening scene, but in a more gritty and sordid context. The film also draws parallels between other characters and figures in the Ramayana. Rana Singh, one of the police chiefs and main antagonists, even has a name similar to the demon king Ravana. 

The film includes many flashbacks to Kid’s childhood with his mother. These often occur before a major battle Kid faces, whether that be physical or internal, as a way to showcase how he is motivated by his mother and the injustice she faced. One flashback depicts Kid hiding upstairs as his mom is brutally assaulted and murdered. This, coupled with other moments that show Kid’s mother teaching him various Hindu myths and the lessons that come with them, illustrates how his mother perennially reminds him of his purpose and why he is putting in his all.

One of the most moving scenes in the film occurs when Kid enters the Hijra temple. The Hijras are trans women who are viewed as outcasts and referred to as a third gender within India. By taking him in and healing him they highlight their shared struggle against the institution. After being given soma, which is an ancient psychedelic used in many Hindu rituals, we watch Kid rip open his chest. Inside his chest is a vast space, the center of which contains memories of his childhood: the strong roots and clear water of the village he grew up in, and the night his mother died. This is a direct reference to another story of Hanuman, where he opens his chest to show that Rama and Sita are what lies inside, displaying his devotion and love for them. This allusion shows the viewer how Kid’s roots and his love for his mother are what drives him, and the massive impact that traumatic experience had in shaping him. 

In addition to defining events like this, there are also several small references to the Ramayana in paintings, the name of the club that Kid infiltrates, and fight scenes (including a distinctive moment when someone’s nose is bitten off, calling back to the story of the demon Surpanakha). Monkey Man’s religious imagery adds depth and additional dimension to the events and characters, making the characterization stronger as well as placing Kid at the center of a moral battle, something greater than himself, instead of just a quest for revenge.

Monkey Man contains incredible cinematography. The film is visually stunning—with fantastic composition and style—which isn’t used just for aesthetics, but to also drive the themes of the film home. In the beginning of the movie, Kid contracts the help of children and adults alike throughout the back alleys and streetside stalls of Mumbai to steal the wallet of Queenie, a business tycoon with connections to the man who killed his mother. Coupled with the sharp tones in JID’s 151 Rum playing in the background, this scene is characterized by its tense and dynamic energy. The wallet is discreetly passed through the hands of over a dozen different people before it gets to Patel’s character, highlighting the strong kinship and community of the neighborhood and challenging the individualism in similar Western and Eurocentric action films. Overall, Patel creates a sense of accomplishment and catharsis when Kid gets the wallet, with this achievement reflecting a communal victory of the people of Mumbai over an exploitative and corrupt leader.

In Act II, an incredibly powerful scene occurs where Kid, who is given shelter by the Hijra community, is training to win his next fight. The scene is especially compelling because of the music. The renowned Zakir Hussain plays the tabla as Kid trains with a rice sack repurposed as a makeshift punching bag, creating a rhythmic call-and-response. Although there is no dialogue, the tabla player is able to teach Kid to fight with rhythm. The residents of the temple cheer him on, sticking their heads out the windows, in turn bolstering his confidence and showing him their communal support. The punching bag serves as a symbol of the powerlessness Kid has felt his whole life up until this point, and the injustices of the world that attempted to knock him down—whether it’s being paid to lose on purpose in the underground fight club or being forced to watch the death of his mother. This scene is a turning point for Kid to be able to spin the narrative around, and finally take down those who have wronged him. The tabla is a staple instrument of Indian classical music, a musical tradition that goes back generations and is integral to Indian culture and community. Kid is trained, strengthened, and motivated by this culture, community, and religion, serving also to display the strength of the Hijra community. Not only is Kid supported and fortified by this community, but he is also later able to aid and mobilize them to take down the corrupt leaders who caused his mother’s death. When the Hijras come in to fight as backup at Queenie’s to support Kid, it’s a triumphant moment. We can truly see the Hijras’ power when they show up for the fight, to challenge the injustices and  wrongs committed by people in power. This represents another victory of the community against the systems of power that disenfranchise them.

Ultimately, Monkey Man is a brilliant, incendiary critique of systems of power. Incredible cinematography, soundtrack, and cultural references combine to create a compelling, meaningful masterpiece that challenges institutional corruption and injustice.

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