'I Threw Everything At It': 'Monkey Man' Redefines The Dev Patel We've Known Until Now

Interview: The actor speaks about Shah Rukh Khan's influence, Indian mythology and the power of action cinema.

Dev Patel in Monkey Man

Image Source: Universal Pictures

It was almost 16 years ago when Slumdog Millionaire put Dev Patel on the Hollywood map. As a then-18-year-old, he was plucked by acclaimed director Danny Boyle (after his daughter noticed him on Skins) to tell an iconic story of a rags to riches dream, that would ultimately catapult him to A-lister status and help shape his screen career trajectory. 

Now 33, Patel has an impressive reel under his belt, with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Lion, Hotel Mumbai and The Personal History of David Copperfield being undeniable highlights. But it’s his latest movie, Monkey Man, that redefines the Dev Patel we’ve known up until now. 

Making his directorial debut in the gripping action thriller that also sees him star as the lead, Patel doesn’t hide his ambition to shake up the cinematic landscape. 

“I wanted to make a film that I desperately wanted to see – is the easiest answer,” Patel tells Draw Your Box of his reason for choosing this movie to be the first one he directs. 

Inspired by the legend of Hindu deity, Lord Hanuman who embodies strength and courage, the film stars Patel as Kid – an anonymous young man who makes a living from wearing a gorilla mask in an underground fight club every night, where he's then beaten by popular fighters for cash. Confronting his childhood trauma and familial loss, he seeks revenge on the men who took everything from him, and who continue to punish the poor and less privileged. 

@drawyourbox Monkey Man’s Dev Patel loved SRK’s Koyla! 😍 #devpatel #monkeyman #monkeymanmovie #shahrukhkhan #srk #bollywood #desitok #southasian #representationmatters ♬ original sound - Draw Your Box

As the son of Gujarati parents who were born in Kenya before migrating separately to England as teens, Patel’s interest in Hindu mythology started at a young age.

“My grandfather first kind of exposed me to them [the stories]. He was away living in Kenya and I absolutely adored spending time with him and he used to come to London,” Patel recalls. “I used to make him curl up next to me in my box room and tell me these stories, and I was absolutely enamoured with the character of Hanuman – this kind of half-man, half-monkey, simian superhero.

“The older I got and the more research I did into the mythology, I was like, ‘Wow, he’s almost an outsider’ and the stories of young Hanuman are like Icarus and daring to reach too high. I was like, ‘We could draw parallels to the caste system and all sorts of things here.’ It fit so well into the action genre of working your way up to challenge a more increasingly difficult boss,” he explains. “This is a revenge film about faith, in a way.” 

Dev Patel and Sobhita Dhulipala in Monkey Man

Dev Patel and Sobhita Dhulipala in Monkey Man. Image Source: Universal Picture

Imagery of the Hindu deity, Hanuman features in Dev Patel's movie Monkey Man

Imagery of the Hindu deity, Hanuman features in Monkey Man. Image Source: Universal Pictures

The action genre isn’t new territory for the actor. He starred in 2019 film Hotel Mumbai, based on the real-life 2008 Mumbai attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. But Monkey Man’s interpretation of an action movie is so different from Patel’s past work. It specifically takes inspiration from films he’s grown up watching in awe, in order to then depict the plight of an underdog, a man willing to fiercely push himself and others to the extremes to provoke chaos and attain closure. He uses the genre to highlight social issues of casteism as well as the enduring power of faith.

“I’m a consumer of action films and I love revenge cinema,” he says. “Everything from Tarantino to Korean movies to even the bombastic Bollywood stuff that I've been exposed to as a child.

“I'm a huge fan of Indian cinema. You know, I wish I had consumed more,” he adds. 

Patel was only seven when Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s film, Koyla was released, but it had a lasting impact. 

“I don't even remember the plot too well, because I watched it when I was really young. But it was Shah Rukh Khan in this movie, Koyla. He had these red eyes and was drenched in sweat,” Patel recounts with a wide grin. “He had this mullet haircut and the sword. It was like a brutal revenge epic where he’d lost his voice by being forced to swallow hot coals.” 

Korean cinema, movies like Koyla and actor Bruce Lee have been drawn upon to make Monkey Man the action-packed watch that it is. What’s more, the film is a compelling extension of Patel himself. 

“It’s [the movie] kind of got it all,” he says. “It’s kind of like me in a way – my identity has been formed by all of these influences.” 

@drawyourbox When Dev Patel says “Blessings from my mother” in Hindi in Monkey Man 😍👏🏾 #devpatel #monkeyman #monkeymanmovie #desitok #hindi #indian #representationmatters ♬ original sound - Draw Your Box

As Monkey Man begins, viewers are transported to a forest in India, where Kid and his mother are speaking Hindi. To so seamlessly open a film with foreign dialogue in western cinemas around the world is bound to evoke emotion amongst many South Asian viewers, as it did with me. I only need to cast my mind back 20 years ago, when Hindi-language films were only aired in small theatres in predominantly multicultural suburbs in western Sydney. To now be surrounded by my media industry peers who must listen to every Hindi word uttered on the big screen, is monumental in making me feel seen. It’s heartwarming, and it makes me proud to be brown. 

Patel’s decision to intersperse Hindi dialogue amongst the English was very deliberate to achieve authenticity. 

“Not only is it a beautiful language, but I wanted his [Kid’s] past to be grounded in realism,” he says. “A mother and a son growing up in a forest together in the outskirts – I don't think they would be eloquent in English.

“I have one of the coolest lines – ‘blessings from my mother’ is in Hindi and Universal [Pictures] leaned into that in the marketing and it just shows where cinema is heading. From Parasite to Slumdog, language is becoming less and less of a barrier.”

Speaking of Universal’s backing of this film, what many viewers may not know is that Monkey Man had initially been slated for a Netflix release, with the streaming giant buying the rights to the film in 2021. While finer details of that deal aren’t clear, we know that it was later announced that Get Up director Jordan Peele [under his Monkeypaw Productions banner] and Universal Pictures had come on board to release the movie instead. Back in January, The Hollywood Reporter reported that according to insiders, Peele saw the movie and “believed it deserved its time to shine on the big screen”.  

@drawyourbox Dev the director! Loved chatting to him about Monkey Man 👏🏾 #devpatel #monkeyman #monkeymanmovie #desitok #indian #southasian #representationmatters ♬ original sound - Draw Your Box

Patel agrees that a cinematic release highlights that brown stories are just as worthy of being told to a wider audience.

“I really hope people get out and watch it because that really sends a message to the studio system that these stories work and that they can be profitable,” he explains. “I threw everything at it for that reason. It’s a celebration of what it is to be Indian, to be an underdog, the Indian classical music, the Hijra community, Diwali, the turbo rickshaws. We’ve got it all in this thing.”

While the movie’s widespread release isn’t until the first week of April, a limited audience was recently treated to a sneak-peek at the world premiere at SXSW, where Monkey Man also won the SXSW Headliner audience award. 

Patel was visibly moved to tears when he received a standing ovation for the film, and it’s easy to see why. This film was 10 years in the making. He broke his hand doing action scenes, sacrificed other big roles that came his way, and didn’t back down from creating a masterpiece that will strike a chord amongst the diaspora who also desperately wants to see a redefined, relatable action hero. 

“Winning that award at South By was a miracle,” he says. “There’s a Hanuman looking over this movie, I think.” 

@drawyourbox Brown and proud for this Monkey Man interview 🤎 #devpatel #monkeyman #monkeymanmovie #jhumka #jhumkas #desitok #indian #indianjewellery ♬ original sound - Draw Your Box

Monkey Man releases in Australian cinemas on April 4 and in the US on April 5. Watch the trailer below.