Dev Patel's 'Monkey Man' Has a Rowdy, Political SXSW Premiere

At a festival known for raucous audiences, Dev Patel’s “Monkey Man” made for the rowdiest screening yet.

During the SXSW premiere of the actor’s directorial debut, Austin’s Paramount Theater was filled with cries of “We love you, Dev!” and “India!” that can only be described as guttural. The crowd’s love for Patel only grew more fervent as the film went on, revealing not only a new cinematic voice, but a surprisingly political action thriller that saw Patel’s character take on the Hindu caste system with teeth, knives and blood.

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“The action genre has been abused by the system,” Patel said while introducing the film. “You know, a quick buck. Mindless shit. I wanted to give it soul. Real trauma. Real pain. You guys deserve that. I wanted to infuse it with a little bit of culture.”

The film follows Kid (Patel), who scrapes by with the cash he makes getting beaten in an underground fight club before unresolved trauma from his childhood drives him to infiltrate the social scene of his city’s wealthiest and most corrupt. As it becomes clearer that the people who murdered his mother continue to inflict casteist and Islamophobic violence on millions of others, he unites with others on the outskirts of society to get revenge on their common enemies.

“I really wanted to touch on the caste system in India,” Patel explained after the screening. “You have the poor at the bottom, slaving away in the kitchens. Then you go up to the land of the kings. Above them is God — a manmade God that’s polluting and corrupting religion.”

“Monkey Man” is produced by Jordan Peele, who came on board well after production and, as Patel put it, “brushed the dust off, put it back on the mantelpiece and gave us this opportunity.” The film was originally set to be distributed by Netflix before being rerouted to Universal Pictures, where Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions banner has an overall deal. It’s believed that Peele drove the deal after seeing the film and feeling it needed more than a streaming release. After thanking Universal executives Donna Langley, Peter Cramer and Michael Moses, Peele said, “Thank you for seeing what we saw in this film. This is a film that simply demands to be seen in a theater with a huge, raucous audience.”

Introducing Patel to the stage, Peele said that he had “never seen someone pour his heart, soul, body, mind and energy into a story more than this man.” And while recounting the journey of making the film, Patel proved that to be true, listing a multitude of injuries he sustained in the process.

“I broke my foot two weeks before the shoot, and then tore my shoulder,” he said. “And in the middle of that bathroom fight on day two, I broke my hand. I finished shooting that whole night, and my hand was like an elephant’s. You can see in the film that there are some wraps sometimes — that’s from the surgery. I got on a plane, they put a screw in, and the doctor’s like, ‘You cannot put any pressure on it. If it bends, this nail, it’ll be like pulling a bent nail out of wood. You’ll ruin your hand.’ I went straight back into the action scenes.”

“I’ve got a sick brain,” Patel said when taking an audience question about how often his character bites his opponents. “It had to be as snotty and as drooly [as possible]. I had an eye infection from crawling on the floor in that bathroom.”

There were more setbacks beyond all the bodily harm.

“We faced catastrophe every day. We were originally going to have this amazing Hollywood stunt team, and then the borders closed,” Patel said, as “Monkey Man” was in production when the pandemic hit. “So we went on YouTube, started looking at videos and found Brahim [Chab, a stuntman]. He was in Thailand, and that border was still open, so we’re like, ‘Hey man, can you come, like, tomorrow?'”

“There wasn’t a single piece of camera equipment that worked right. That shot during Diwali when the camera was swinging over the people, the crane broke. So we were like, ‘Let’s put it on a rope. What if we could detach it while they’re swinging and then run through the crowd?’ Just constantly trying to find find a different calibration.”

Despite everything Patel pulled off as a debut director, he hasn’t always planned to helm his own films.

“I was just trying to find a way to tell this story. I wanted it out there,” he said. “I reluctantly got pushed into the driver’s seat and it unfolded from there.”

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