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Monkey Man’s imperfect political critique still packs a punch

Dev Patel’s fast-paced directorial debut takes aim at contemporary Indian politics as the country grapples with religious extremism and threats to democracy.



Monkey Man’s imperfect political critique still packs a punch
Monkey Man’s imperfect political critique still packs a punch
Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

Monkey Man, a gripping, blood-soaked action film from first-time director Dev Patel, has garnered acclaim for its fight scenes — including, famously, when the main character cuts a man’s throat open by holding the knife in his mouth.

Undergirding all this action, however, is also an attempt at commentary about growing authoritarianism in India, and how political leaders leverage both religion and police to maintain their power.

“Having spent most of my career traveling in and out of India shooting films, it is hard to ignore some of the stories that fill the columns of the newspapers there,” Patel said in a BBC interview. “I wanted to touch on some of that and maybe reach an audience that would never normally access such topics.”

Monkey Man’s debut comes as India navigates its 2024 elections, which the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a chief proponent of Hindu nationalism, hopes to use to maintain its political dominance nationally. Since he came to power in 2014, Modi has acted to suppress political opposition, to undermine the free press, and to discriminate against Muslim people, all efforts that mark what experts describe as a backsliding of the country’s secular democracy.

Monkey Man stops short of critiquing the BJP’s policies explicitly — and in fact reportedly underwent minor changes to avoid doing so. But key plot points levy clear broadsides against India’s current political leaders, Hindu nationalism, and corruption in law enforcement.

Centered on a protagonist known as “Kid” (Patel) seeking vengeance for his mother’s murder at the hands of a brutal police chief (Sikandar Kher), Monkey Man is largely a breakneck action film jam-packed with stunts, gore, and creative uses of fireworks. That Patel was willing to use this forum to make a political statement, however, is significant as the Indian government has cracked down on journalists, freedom of expression, and cinema. Notably, too, Monkey Man goes further than many mainstream Bollywood films, which are unlikely to have such pointed politics — and which at times have even boosted Modi.

Monkey Man’s villains are analogues for contemporary politics

In his efforts to avenge his mother (Adithi Kalkunte), Kid’s chief targets are Rana Singh, the police chief of a fictional city clearly meant to be a stand-in for Mumbai, as well as Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), the religious leader Singh works for.

Shakti (whose name translates to “power” in Hindi) is depicted as a guru who capitalizes on religious fervor to justify crimes like the land dispossession of minority groups. While not a political leader himself, Shakti is portrayed as the puppetmaster behind a political leader’s operation. Singh, meanwhile, is shown using violence and authority to hurt those with less power and to implement Shakti’s plans.

Given the framing of these characters, Shakti has been perceived by many viewers and critics as an analogue for Modi and key members of the BJP, like Yogi Adityanath, a far-right populist spiritual leader and politician who built his following in part through a fiery, reactionary interpretation of Hinduism. Like Modi, Adityanath has been accused of using his political power to harm minority communities.

Monkey Man takes direct aim at both Shakti and Singh’s characters, with a particularly devastating scene featuring the police destroying Kid and his mother’s village, as the officers seek to clear the land for development under Shakti’s orders. That destruction is followed by Singh’s attempted sexual assault and then violent murder of Kid’s mother, a harrowing attack that fuels the protagonist’s lifelong pursuit of revenge.

While Kid grew up listening to stories about Hindu gods and isn’t Muslim, these developments echo real-life land dispossession that has specifically targeted Muslims in India and been overseen by the state and by police. “Thousands of Muslim families have been forcibly evicted [in the Indian state of Assam] since 2021 from land they had been residing on for decades,” Nazimuddin Siddique writes for Al Jazeera. “Since 2016, police have shot at and killed protesters in at least two instances.”

Modi has also been repeatedly scrutinized for his role in anti-Muslim riots in 2002, which police and government officials did little to stop and which killed 1,200 people in the state of Gujarat. As chief minister of the state at the time, Modi has been accused not only of condoning but inciting this violence. He has been cleared of wrongdoing by Indian courts, but questions about his involvement remain, and were most recently surfaced by a 2023 BBC documentary about the massacre that was censored by the Indian government. In 2005, the State Department barred Modi from a US visit due to concerns about his involvement.

Shakti’s power only grows after the destruction of Kid’s village, and as Monkey Man documents the success of the political party he supports in the film, it also intersperses clips from actual news reports on protests against the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in India. Shakti at one point also utilizes the Hindi phrase “Bharat Mata ki jai,” which translates to “Long live Mother India,” and is often employed by BJP leaders, including Modi.

For all its efforts to broach this subject, the film’s critiques could be even sharper. When it comes to its depiction of Shakti, the film doesn’t offer many specifics about his ideology, beyond that he abuses the support he receives. And much of the attention in the movie is dedicated to the individual animus Kid has toward Singh, the police officer, rather than the system that he’s a part of.

Some film critics, including Siddhant Adlakha, who wrote a piece for Time, and Prabhjot Bains, who authored a review for But Why Tho, also took issue with how the film employed certain Hindu references.

For Bains, the use of the phrase, “Jai Bajrang Bali,” which praises Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god behind the film’s namesake, contained uncomfortable echoes of how Hindu nationalists have utilized it. This phrase is used by a viewer at a boxing match to support Patel’s character, who is dressed like a monkey.

That same phrase, however, has also been used as a slogan by Hindu nationalists while committing harm against Muslims, Bains writes. For Adlakha, efforts to recast Hindu imagery were also complicated by how they were used to endorse violence.

“The reclamation of such images appears to be Patel’s goal — one he shares with numerous Hindu leaders who have continued to battle Hindu nationalism,” Adlakha adds. “But the use of Hindu imagery as a call to violence, reminiscent of the Hindutva project, is central to Kid’s mission, resulting in narrative dissonance.”

It’s worth noting that the film’s inclusion and celebration of trans people in India, some of whom are part of a community known as hijra, is also significant, directly pushing back on how they have been marginalized by media and in society. In Monkey Man, a group of hijra offer Kid sanctuary, train him in a martial arts montage, and rescue him during an especially pivotal fight scene. Monkey Man’s depictions of the sexual assault and harassment of women also nod at enduring violence that women have experienced in India, drawing more awareness to this ongoing problem.

you don’t understand. the people in this gif are hijras/transfemme/3rd gender people & they’re about to kick ass. MONKEY MAN is an incredible action film featuring INDIAN TRANS PEOPLE as a major part of the plot! I can’t stop screaming it from the rooftops! Dev Patel ilysm ️‍⚧️

— Jeremy Allen Black ✊ (they/them) (@LKirwanAshman) April 7, 2024

Despite its shortcomings, it’s nonetheless notable that Patel made political criticism of Indian leaders such a pivotal aspect of the film, especially given the current climate and how heavily studios count on the Indian market. According to Irfan Nooruddin, a professor of Indian politics at Georgetown University, it’s “virtually unheard of” for mainstream films to make such a direct critique of Modi and the BJP.

That’s because film censorship in India has gotten worse in recent years as the BJP has increased scrutiny of art and expression that’s critical of the government. Ahead of April’s election, for instance, Bollywood has released a slew of films that amplify Modi’s agenda. Besides the BBC documentary, other projects — including a film adaptation of Maximum City, a book that nods at Muslim oppression in India, and Gormint, a political satire — have also been tabled by Netflix and Amazon due to what The Washington Post describes as “self-censorship.”

Concerns about this were even clear in Monkey Man itself, which was bought then dropped by Netflix, with some reports suggesting that may have been due to worries about its political content. Even after it was rescued by Universal, there appear to have been changes: In one example, an early trailer showed the banners for the political party in the film as saffron — the color of the BJP. In the final film, some of these banners have been changed to red. And presently, it’s still uncertain if Monkey Man will screen in India at all.

the new trailer shows that they've changed the colors of the evil political party from saffron (hindu nationalist BJP) to red (communist party)

— atulya (@computer_atulya) March 23, 2024

“I don’t see it coming out in India, but if it does it’s not going to come out in one piece,” Adlakha tells Vox, citing likely censorship of violence, sexuality, and politics in the film. “It’s going to be a heavily compromised version.”

There are major threats to India’s democracy

Monkey Man is premiering during a period when experts are worried about the state of India’s democracy and the potential for more erosion.

In a federal election set to begin on April 19, the BJP is expected to maintain its majority in Parliament, wins that could further cement the anti-Muslim positions it employs and its efforts to subvert major institutions like the press and the judiciary.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has written, the BJP rose to power while pursuing “policies undermining Muslim rights and inflaming Hindu anxieties about their Muslim neighbors.” A key law that has raised concern is the Citizenship Amendment Act, which excludes Muslims from neighboring countries from obtaining a fast track to Indian citizenship. That same law allows members of other religious groups including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians to expedite their attempts at naturalization.

Both Modi’s and the party’s rhetoric have sought to exploit existing divides between Hindu and Muslim people, including questioning the right of certain Muslims to be in India and alleging that they’re seeking to overtake the Hindu majority by growing their population. One example of this has been fears that the BJP have stoked about the concept of “love jihad,” which alleges that Muslim men are interested in marrying Hindu women in order to establish a larger presence in India.

There’s “a growing sense of fear that a continued run of the BJP is going to bring more laws that are going to really put Muslims in second-class citizenship status,” says Nooruddin.

During Modi’s tenure, there have also been a number of anti-democratic developments, including the increased jailing of opposition, attacks on journalists, media censorship, and the weakening of the judiciary.

In recent weeks, the chief minister of Delhi, a major opposition leader, was jailed shortly before the election on corruption charges he claims are politically motivated. Assaults on the press have also become more common, with police raiding the homes of reporters at a left-leaning publication in 2023, and some mainstream outlets now dubbed “lapdog media” by prominent journalists who call them that for their willingness to dilute critiques on the government. Top political leaders have also tried to diminish the role of the judiciary and to exert greater influence in the selection of judges.

Monkey Man, though imperfect, dares to allude to some of these concerns in a time when even doing that is a risky move.