Dev Patel’s Blockbuster ‘Monkey Man’ Centers Trans Women in Its Radical Politics

In poetic terms, Dev Patel’s directorial debut, Monkey Man, clawed its way to see the light of day.

I first heard about it back in 2022 when I briefly worked a gig as a copywriter for Netflix. Still freelancing, I pitched coverage of the movie to multiple publications multiple times. Unfortunately, Netflix kept pushing the release.

Why? It’s action-packed, violence-fueled John Wickean cinema, and the film’s director and leading man Dev Patel, handsome and very famous, would certainly draw viewers and money. But the movie, for all its qualities of a blockbuster, is about an underdog taking down a religio-fascist regime, one that resembles India’s sitting ruling party. And people suspect that Netflix gave into political fear. It finally comes out today distributed, not by Netflix, but by Universal Pictures. I can vividly imagine Patel and his collaborators making the observation that Monkey Man was an underdog of its own. A movie, ripe to be seen and ready to win, was being suppressed.

As Patel’s nameless character makes his money in illegal street fighting, and plots to get close to a mob boss, news broadcasts in the background reveal the story’s political undercurrent. There is a seemingly meditative cult-like guru who is leading a right-wing ideology that similarly resembles Hindutva. This includes systemic and interpersonal discrimination against the city’s transgender population.

Hijra refers to people of a “third gender,” but is most commonly used to describe certain trans women living in community together. Halfway through the movie, when Patel’s character is on the lam for an aggression with a police captain, he seeks refuge in one of these hijra living communities. They make a classic alliance: two underdogs pinned down by systemic failure.

They talk about the Hindu folklore of Shiva and Parvati, a married couple who, together, are referred to as Ardhanarishvara, an androgynous figure meant to represent wholeness as more than two separate pieces coming together. “He needed to be reminded by fellow outsiders of who he was,” Patel told Variety. “And together they waged this war for the good and the just.” He refers to Monkey Man, which is based on old Hindu mythology about Hanuman, as an “anthem for the underdog, the voiceless, the marginalized.” The trans temple’s maternal figure, a woman named Alpha, builds his strengths back up, mentally, physically, and spiritually. He takes psychedelics (I assume), and faces his own traumas of poverty and police violence.That’s where we learn his targets are the forces who murdered his mother and burned down his village. In the final fight, the trans community form his army.

The movie is Shakespearean in that it takes a popular format—an action movie—and sneaks in its more challenging message. For Patel, that message is truth to power. Maybe the format doesn’t blow our minds—it hits the familiar beats of a long-popular genre—and yet its radical because action movies have historically shown the military and police in favorable light. Doing the opposite has scared the powerful.

Netflix sold the film to Universal Pictures for less than $10 million after buying it initially for $30 million. And India has reportedly postponed the film’s release—maybe because the film’s primary villain, Baba Shakti, shares a similar conservative Hindu values vibe to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Then there’s this Reddit discussion that compares original scenes from the movie to the current scenes, wherein the ruling party’s color is digitally corrected from orange, coincidentally the BJP’s color, to red.

To me, the context of the film’s release is even more interesting than the film itself. This is a brilliant directorial debut, but art engages with the world that houses it. The larger story of the film’s release shows it succeeded—and the world engaged back.

Monkey Man is now in theatres.

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Aamina Inayat Khan

Aamina Inayat Khan is a culture writer in Brooklyn, NY. You can find their other work at Teen Vogue, Vogue, the Cut, W Mag, The New York Times, and on Substack. Follow on Instagram and Twitter at @aaminasdfghjkl

Aamina has written 5 articles for us.


    • Finally! This is an outstanding movie, I’m so happy it’s finally getting released! I get to screen some Netflix movies early, and they sent this in November of 2022, so I was worried it had been shelved, but to see that it’s actually getting a wider release is so well deserved.

  1. i live under a rock and hadn’t heard about this til now. i don’t know i can handle the trauma in this (the R rating includes rape) but i am very glad its out there & am excited for people to watch it. i love subversive indian film so much.

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