Monkey Man – Infusing Indian Mythologies with Contemporary Sensibility


“I spent about eight years of my life, in between projects, tweaking this script,” Patel says. “It’s very close to my heart. It’s taking one of the oldest Indian mythologies and giving it a modern spin, so hopefully it’ll internationalize this story and create a brand new superhero epic, something wholly original. It vibrates with energy and soul and heart, and insane action.”

Monkey Man is inspired by the legend of the Hindu deity Hanuman, a symbol of wisdom, strength, courage, devotion and self-discipline. The legend of a divine monkey reportedly dates back to between 1500 and 1200 BCE and first appears in a hymn in the Rigveda, a collection of ancient hymns considered one of the four sacred canonical Hindu texts. As he appears in the Sanskrit epics the “Mahabharata” and the “Ramayana,” Hanumanis a symbol of freedom. Physically invincible, yet deeply human, he cautions his followers about the “precarious nature of unbridled power.” As legend has it, as a child, Hanuman broke his jaw falling from the heavens after trying to grab the sun. Beloved by his followers, Hanuman now connects to the Divine through service to his people.

Patel’s film transmogrifies that legend into the modern world, where a broken young man, Kid, becomes a powerful weapon and avenging angel against the corrupt, powerful leaders that oppress the very people they are supposed to serve. The film is set in the fictional Indian city of Yatana, a Sanskrit word that can mean “struggle or endeavor,” but also “vengeance.”

Monkey Man is directed by Dev Patel from his original story and his screenplay with Paul Angunawela and John Collee (Hotel Mumbai, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

Marking an astonishing, tour-de-force feature directing debut with an action thriller about one man’s quest for vengeance against the corrupt leaders who murdered his mother and continue to systemically victimize the poor and powerless, Monkey Man is inspired by the legend of Hanuman, an icon embodying strength and courage. It stars Patel as Kid, an anonymous young man who ekes out a meager living in an underground fight club where, night after night, wearing a gorilla mask, he is beaten bloody by more popular fighters for cash. 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 the men who took everything from him.

Ever since I was a child, I have been obsessed with action cinema. From sneaking downstairs at midnight and watching Bruce Lee leap from the screen and into my imagination in Enter the Dragon, to watching Shah Rukh Khan fighting off hundreds of bad guys to save the love of his life, to then being introduced to Korean cinema—which took the revenge genre to a whole new level in my mind—I knew one day I’d fuse my love of all these cultures, styles and storytelling to make something for people like me. No, not just the brown guy born in London who’s confused about his identity. No, I wanted to make an anthem for the underdogs. A hero who doesn’t have all the tools, can’t provide the perfect quip at every moment—the guy who tries and fails, and tries again—only to fail once more. A young man accustomed to being underestimated, with equal amounts of pain as rage, grappling with real trauma… that is, until he finds other outsiders, underdogs, like himself, to help build him up and give him the courage to fight for what is good and true. 

The action genre can easily be abused by the system, churning out content that lacks substance for a quick profit. But as a true fan of the genre, I know it can handle more. The audience wants more. I’m adding a heavy dose of culture to the mix.

As a child, my grandfather introduced me to the story of Hanuman, the Monkey God. I was stunned at how many modern comic books have drawn inspiration from Eastern philosophy and iconographies. 

There was a time when I was constantly pigeonholed as an actor. Then I realized that instead of running away from my heritage, I was going to double-down on it and showcase what makes me proud of who I am. While the film celebrates my culture, I’m as equally committed to calling out the systemic and institutional issues that continue to be perpetuated and imposed on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. At its core, Monkey Man is a love letter to my family. It’s about blending the mythology that my father and my grandfather shared with me and also about honoring the power of all the incredible women in my life—foremost my mother. And how far someone would go to avenge a wrong inflicted on someone you love so dearly.

L to R: Director Dev Patel and Sobhita Dhulipala on the set of MONKEY MAN

To get Monkey Man made, Patel found partners in bringing his vision to life, likeminded creatives who supported independent storytelling, including producers Jomon Thomas, Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Christine Haebler, Sam Sahni and Anjay Nagpal. “I feel like this film’s going to be a black sheep—come out of nowhere and surprise people,” Patel says. “And ruffle some feathers.”

His fellow filmmakers were inspired by his vision for Monkey Man and were eager to help make it a reality. “Having previously collaborated on films that Dev starred in, I had a profound understanding of his capabilities beyond acting,” producer Jomon Thomas says. “Over the years, he often shared his vision for Monkey Man. This narrative instantly captivated me due to its depth and potential on various fronts: working with Dev as a director, showcasing the vibrancy of our culture, and crafting a distinctive cinematic journey for the viewers worldwide. Dev’s monumental ambition fueled my enthusiasm, and I dived in right at the script-development stage.”

Patel drew inspiration from film genres he has long admired, including Korean revenge-action, alongside groundbreaking film series such as John Wick. “We’ve mixed it with dramatic elements,” Patel says. “Some of my favorite movies are Man from Nowhere and Oldboy, also a wonderful film from Indonesia, The Raid. We had a number of The Raid team working on this. As well as the John Wick team, who happen to be producers with Thunder Road. We put all of these in a blender, added some masala from India.”

To lens Monkey Man, the production team would head to Batam, Indonesia, for the key principal photography shoot. “My beautiful crew was hard at work over there,” Patel says. “It was an action-packed, crazy ride—blood, sweat, tears, broken bones, literally, for this revenge film about faith. It’s set in a modernized India, and we take one of the oldest mythologies we have and put a brand-new spin on it. We’ve taken something and made it completely original. It vibrates with energy and soul and culture, and some of the most insane action.”

Monkey Man was initially scheduled to be released on a streaming platform, but with the shoot completed and the film in the editing process, Patel and his fellow producers sought out the perfect partners to finalize Patel’s labor of love and launch it as a major theatrical release, instead. They found that partner in American filmmaker Jordan Peele and his Monkeypaw productions team, including producers Win Rosenfeld and Ian Cooper. “When Monkey Man was going through a change of ownership, we happened to hear about it and got a first look,” producer Ian Cooper says. “We instantly fell in love with the story and were inspired to help move the film forward. We brought it over to Universal, through the post-production process, to the finish line.”

The film was a perfect match for Monkeypaw’s ethos. “Monkeypaw is about mischief, provocation and fun, and this movie is a perfect example of that philosophy,” says producer Win Rosenfeld. “We love working with filmmakers attempting something truly genre-bending and disruptive, and the process of bringing those kinds of films to theaters is deeply gratifying. With Monkey Man, Dev created something undeniable and unignorable and we’re deeply grateful to be on that ride with him.”

Like Patel, Peele’s career began in front of the camera as a performer, and his directorial debut, Get Out, launched a monumental new chapter in his career. Since then, Monkeypaw has collaborated with several visionary directors including Nia DaCosta, Henry Selick and Spike Lee. “At Monkeypaw, we try to provide opportunity for visionary filmmakers to tell stories that otherwise we wouldn’t see in Hollywood,” Cooper says. “We’re so proud to be partnering with Dev who faced countless obstacles to get this film released.”

Sharlto Copley in MONKEY MAN

For Peele, Monkey Man was an easy “yes.” “When I heard ‘Dev Patel,’ I was hooked,” Peele says. “He’s one of my favorite actors. He’s also one of the most consistently empathetic and emotive performers who has this amazing opportunity to be a badass. Then I heard that he also directed the film, which blew my mind that someone could try and direct themselves in this way.”

Peele says: “I was really drawn to the theme in this film of revenger becoming an avenger. This story gets us on board emotionally with the drive of vengeance, which is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, force in film,” Peele says. “It does it so well. Kid is on such a personal, emotional mission, with a character of such humility, that all we want to do is see him succeed. Then, once he reaches a certain point, the character realizes that revenge may not be enough, that he has to fight for everyone.”

Peele and his team were also floored by Patel’s filmmaking skill, with epic action sequences scenes that manage to be as palpably violent as they are cinematically beautiful. “I’m struck with how many shots that feel like one take—one that feels so fluid and visceral,” Peele says. “Then Dev, as a physical performer, as a fighter, has such a unique action quality to his movement. There’s so much to take in but, ultimately, there are the moments of visceral violence that are real ‘holy-shit’ moments. This is the perfect example of a movie that we were able to be in the right place at the right time to help support.”

Director Dev Patel (center left) on the set of his film MONKEY MAN

To create the fictional Indian city of Yatana, director Dev Patel and Thai production designer Pawas Sawatchaiyamet looked to the world of superheroes. “Dev saw the story happening in this specific kind of world,” Sawatchaiyamet says. “Thinking of Gotham as the dark side of New York City, we created Yatana as the dark version of Mumbai. It was a brilliant, smart idea that stimulated me to see a fresh way to design Monkey Man. Dev was extremely passionate for the story and clearly knew what he wanted. I’m so proud to be part of his debut film.”

Although the production filmed in Batam, Indonesia, Sawatchaiyamet says that he and his team “tried to keep an essence of India-ness.” Sawatchaiyamet was already deeply familiar with Indian iconography and imagery. The influence of Indian culture is evident in much of South Asia and beyond. “In Thailand, we have grown up with the India influence for a long period of time, including religion, cultural and mythology,” Sawatchaiyamet says. “The core idea of Monkey Man is quite relatable to me. The protagonist who comes back to revenge the tyrant, the poor who fight against the wealthy, the underdog from the lowest of society going to battle with the antagonist in the highest—these are all rich textures that represent the different social classes.”