Monkey Man Review – Don’t Call It Indian John Wick

All my life, I’ve had a hard time trying to connect to my own heritage. I was born and raised in the United States, which was universally common among other Indians my age growing up in South Carolina. But the thing that set me apart is that my mother, fully Indian by race, was also born and raised in the US. This is almost unheard of, and to this day I’ve only met a handful of other second-generation Indians over the course of my life.

My brother and I grew up with our American single mother speaking English at home, eating pizza and lasagna, and going to soccer practice and Boy Scouts in an upper middle-class white neighborhood. I barely know any Gujarati, I know only snippets about our religion (my family is Hindu), and I can cook everything except Indian food. I don’t know or understand our traditions, or customs, or anything from the homeland. I am an American through and through, and therefore have been unable to connect with other Indians my own age. In this, Monkey Man star and director Dev Patel and I are alike. In that, I feel that Monkey Man has seen me.

Patel was born and raised in the UK to two Gujarati parents who were already two generations removed from India, who immigrated from Kenya. He was raised Hindu, and the iconography, the meaning, the depth of our religion still has its hooks in him. I don’t know that I’d call myself a practicing Hindu at the moment, although my moralities and worldview are inexorably tied to it. I can see from Patel’s directorial debut, with a story written by him, that he feels very much the same.

In Monkey Man, Patel’s character “Bobby” (we never learn his real name) finds strength, inspiration, and guidance in the story of Hanuman, the monkey god. His many memories of his mother telling him the stories struck me hard and fast – I remember my grandmother sitting on the edge of the bed, telling me stories about Shiva and Parvati. We call it mythology in a broad sense, but to us, it’s real. Even as someone who is a bit lapsed in faith, Hanuman is as real to me as the monkeys that dart through the streets of New Delhi.

The story of Monkey Man is outrageously simple, so I won’t speak too much of it for fear of spoiling it. Although Monkey Man is categorized as an action movie, I think calling it a “violence movie” would better communicate the genre. This film is vicious, unforgiving, angry, and full of such visceral violence that I had to look away from the screen more than once. The fight scenes are hard to watch at times, but the choreography is some of the best I’ve seen in years so I can’t look away. It’s high octane like John Wick, sure, but it’s not about looking cool. It’s not really even about revenge after a point. It’s just about violence.

Monkey Man is overflowing with political subtext, and it is not even a little subtle. The Sovereign Party of India is a direct analog for the real current ruling party, the BJP. They are Hindu nationalists, anti-Muslim, and approaching authoritarian. Under the reign of their leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is also Gujarati and is now revered as a mouthpiece for God by his followers, they have stripped Muslims of rights, taken their holy lands, and displaced them into poverty.

Monkey Man features a spiritual leader called Baba Shakti, a thinly veiled version of Modi, who has perverted Hinduism to create a horrifying cult that aids in sex trafficking and stripping minorities of their rights. In fact he has displaced a community of transgender women, a group of people that are often erased from India altogether. Patel’s character spends a lot of time with the group, and I think it is some of the best transgender representation I have ever seen in media. Their story inspires and heals the soul, while Bobby’s degrades and destroys it.

If you know anything about Indian politics, it’s clear what Patel thinks of PM Modi, even as a Hindu Guju himself. Monkey Man is perhaps not a call to action, but it is a cry of pain. The control of the police, his cult compound, the sex trade, and the temples show the most revered man in India for what he is: evil. In Monkey Man, we learn of Hanuman, the disgraced monkey god, who was punished for his greed. He lost everything, and yet he persevered. And when he came to face the demon king Ravana, he struck him down without mercy.

Monkey Man is not like other films. Other films would show the hero breaking the cycle of violence, and finding love and redemption in the aftermath. Monkey Man is about a man trapped in the cycle of violence, who has lost everything and is a simple husk being driven by revenge. The cycle of violence is not broken during the film’s events, and I think it’s clear from the tone that it will continue on forever. However, there is still something very important to pull from this film: even though humans must continue the violence to survive, we can choose to fight to protect something rather than fighting to destroy something. In that, at least, we have a choice.

Patel’s directorial debut is not only amazingly well produced, it is very well directed. As story writer, lead actor, and director, it’s clear Patel has a hyper-awareness of what is happening in every scene at any given time. I am not usually a fan of needle drops, but these were some of the most well-utilized ones I’ve ever heard. My favorite fight scene in the film, near the end, features the song “Dana Dan” from one of my favorite bands, Bloodywood; the moment I heard the thrashing metal chords I was so elated I couldn’t close my mouth. It’s perfect not only because of its sound, but its message; the song dictates that rapists deserve no sympathy, no opportunity to heal, and no redemption. The only valuable thing they can do is die, and it’s up to us to kill them. Sounds like a familiar theme, perhaps?

I don’t get exposed to a lot of Indian media made by western-born Indians like myself. I struggle to think of anything outside Patel’s breakout movie, Slumdog Millionaire, in fact. There is something uncertain in the way a second generation child grows up, not enough of a tie to America to firmly assert to racists that I belong here, and too much of a disconnect from India for me to think of it any differently than I do Kazakhstan or Cuba.

I have a great love for the Hindu stories my grandparents would read to me as a child, that I would learn about in Bhalvihar (Hindu Sunday School) while practicing yoga to center my spirituality. I think at best, I only half-believe in Vishnu’s giving hands, in the might of Shiva’s wrath, in the safety of Lakshmi’s fortune. But these stories continue to shape me, the way that they continue to shape Bobby in the film. Monkey Man is so odd because it centers on violence inspired on both sides by Hinduism, a religion so pacifistic its symbol is Om, which means peace. I grew up believing in peace. I still do, but now I wonder if in peace we always find the need for violence, eventually.

Monkey Man meditates on if it matters if the story of Hanuman, the monkey god who wanted too much, is true. Will the cycle of violence continue, born of good intentions, until Shiva opens his third eye and the world is consumed in darkness? Maybe. In the meantime, finding something you love, that you are willing to tear into the flesh of evil to protect, is good enough.

Monkey Man is one of the most transformative films I have seen in years, and I am beyond grateful Jordan Peele rescued it from Netflix purgatory. I recommend it to everyone who can handle blood, gore, and pure visceral hatred of this level.

Nirav Gandhi
Nirav is a 30 year-old living in an unlicensed, extended Nintendo commercial. He considers Avatar: The Last Airbender to be the absolute apex of media. He's best known for his unsolicited Scooby-Doo trivia and rants about lore inconsistencies in the Fantastic Beasts movies.

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