38 Things We Learned from Dev Patel’s ‘Monkey Man’ Commentary

"We just wanted to get underneath the action, inside it, feel the sweat dripping on the camera, and just create chaos."
Monkey Man

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Dev Patel’s directorial debut, Monkey Man, with his commentary.

Dev Patel doesn’t own the worst behind-the-scenes production stories — Terry Gilliam still sits atop that ridiculous hill — but his woes bringing his directorial debut to the screen make a strong case for second place. From Covid to budget issues, from crew deaths to serious injuries, from weather problems to political concerns, this was something of a nightmare shoot. Monkey Man is a tale of revenge and faith about an underdog seeking vengeance against those who took away the one person in his life who meant the world to him. It’s far from original on its face, but Patel weaves it through with enough local flavor and lore to see it stand apart in many ways from the most other revenge films.

The film is currently streaming on Peacock and hits Blu-ray later this month, so we sat down and gave a listen to Patel’s first director’s commentary. Now keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

Monkey Man (2024)

Commentator: Dev Patel (director/actor/writer/producer), Joman Thomas (producer), Samarth Sahni (producer), Raghuvir Joshi (producer)

1. Patel introduces the three producers as “the Three Musketeers that helped me make this film.” He adds that it’s been twelve years of their lives.

2. “It’s quite ironic that the company is called Monkeypaw,” he says, and is clearly grateful to Jordan Peele for swooping in and bringing Monkey Man to theaters.

3. Adithe Kalkunte plays the kid’s mother here, and she played Patel’s wife in Hotel Mumbai (2018). “She’s meant to represent not only just a mother, but your best friend, Mother Nature.” Both character and performer have an earthiness that becomes the film’s beating heart, and ultimately it becomes clear that, for all intents and purposes, she is god to him.

4. He sees the film as exploring India’s caste system with “someone reaching too high, flying too high, and being scarred from that experience.”

5. The boxing match three minutes in was one of the first things they shot, and the first A.D. went to the bathroom and never came back. “So we didn’t have a first A.D. on the first day.” All 150 extras in the scene had to quarantine with them for two weeks as they were filming during Covid. Their second first A.D. would quit a short while later.

6. A “big reference” for the opening fight was Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008).

7. They found the shot from beneath the seats (at 4:53) on the day, as they were actually taking a breather down there when Patel noticed it was an interesting shot.

8. The white stuff all over the Kid’s (Patel) arms during the fights is just flour and water. It was a way for the character to disguise his skin tone, and more practically, in also worked to hide Patel’s stunt double’s numerous tattoos as they didn’t have the budget to remove them any other way.

9. The beggar in the wheelchair is played by Monkey Man‘s costume assistant. “The borders closed on us, and we couldn’t all the cast we wanted in,” so many of the film’s crew members also got to spend time in front of the camera.

10. Peele got the rights to use the song “151 Rum” as he “wanted some more hip-hop in it.”

11. Some of the memory flashbacks were shot using cinematographer Sharone Meir‘s swing-shift lens that “uses bungee cords to create, you can actually wobble the lens to create this distortion on the edges.”

12. Patel wrote the character of Alphonso for Pitobash. “He is a four or five-foot pocket rocket.”

13. There’s a direct reference to John Wick (2014) at the gun shop “because we knew that was going to be every American’s reference point,” but Patel says that the film’s influences actually lean more towards South Korean, Hong Kong, and Indian cinema.

14. The shot at 19:04 sees the Kid being a voyeur and watching his boss and another woman through the cracks in a door, and he mentions a scene from Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009) as a direct influence on the shot.

15. They got a call from one of the American producers saying essentially that we’re making an action movie, why do we keep seeing this guy pour tea? Patel dismisses it saying that Monkey Man “lives in its contrasts,” and that goes for the violence and simple beauties as well.

16. Patel busted his hand in a very real way on the second day of filming the big bathroom fight. They knew if production was halted for it — there had already been problems, the money was drying up, Covid was still a very real complication — that production might never be allowed to resume. “I carried on filming until my hand was like an elephant’s foot, and then we got on a private medical jet to Jakarta so we could keep the Covid bubble and avoid any scrutiny from the insurance company for breaking the bubble.” The doctors put a screw in and warned him about applying pressure as it would bend the hardware and permanently damage his hand.

17. The expensive cars parked on either side of Nikki the motorized rickshaw were not cheap to rent, and that made it all the more painful when they scraped the side of one while pulling out of the spot. Once on the open road, the issue became that they couldn’t get it to go faster than four miles per hour. “So to try and generate speed without it looking too Benny Hill we had to use lots of cuts.”

18. We briefly meet a woman named Frisca at 33:03, and Patel says “she passed away from Covid after the production,” adding that “she was a light for us all, and her work will live on through this incredible film.”

19. The VIP club scene was filmed over a few days, and Patel noticed on day one that the tables had no tops — because they couldn’t afford them. He went to the accountants, was told they had $75, and shot day one from the shoulders up. “Only on day two did we run someone’s credit card in order to get them to cut the plexiglass” for the table tops.

20. He wanted Monkey Man‘s first action sequence, the bathroom fight, to feel like a mauling, “so this is not pretty, this piece of action.”

21. Don’t worry, that’s chocolate and minestrone soup in the toilet.

22. The rickshaw chase was filmed in empty streets during a lockdown. They could only afford a couple police jeeps, and couldn’t afford to dress the streets in any way, so it features a lot of closeups and such. Part of the shot where the rickshaw is slammed and knocked over, the brief bit from inside the vehicle, was filmed on Patel’s personal iPhone which he just strapped inside.

23. The man with the axe in the brothel accidentally stomped on Patel’s foot during the fight sequence rehearsal and broke some of his toes.

24. The shots of Patel underwater were filmed at an Airbnb that they rented strictly for the pool and in his own bathtub. “I had an infection in my nose and eyes for about two weeks after this.”

25. The jungle scenes with the boy and his mother were filmed in Indonesia, a few hours walk into the forest. A producer wanted them to be filmed on the hotel golf course, but Patel says “you can’t shoot on a pristine golf course and capture the organic asymmetry and beauty of nature.”

26. They used existing structures whenever possible, for both aesthetic and economic reasons, including an unfinished house for the Hijra temple and an unfinished hotel for Baba Shakti’s (Makrand Deshpande) headquarters.

27. The scene where the Hijra are watching the Kid train happened spontaneously and was unplanned, so Patel just took advantage of it.

28. Shakti’s sermon about cleansing India of the undesirables is matched with snippets of real-world violence against the country’s marginalized groups including women, the poor, and the transgender community. He sees it as a visual representation of the Kid’s transformation from revenger to avenger.

29. He’s very proud of the rice scene as the Kid punches the bag with increased rage, and a handful of grains fall out before it completely explodes. “My heart broke when I saw RRR because we were shooting this a while ago and they did a rice thing, and I was like, ‘Everyone’s gonna be like, You did the rice thing!’ Damn it.’ That’s an amazing movie, by the way.”

30. Max Yantu plays Bhalu the Bear, the huge and hairy fighter who gets beaten by the Kid’s Kong. He wasn’t actually hairy, though, so they had to glue it all over his visible body. The film’s fight choreographer, Brahim Chab, plays King Kobra.

31. The big finale in Monkey Man kicks off with the fancy restaurant hosting a big night, but they didn’t have a real dessert — so the high-class dessert closeup at 1:32:39 is actually just a cinnamon stick, a Ferrero Rocher, and a macaron.

32. It doesn’t help the overall effect, but there’s a thematic reason why the action gets better — is better choreographed, executed, shot, and edited — in the third act. “We changed the style of action, he’s ready, and now the camera doesn’t cut as much.” The boy looking for sloppy revenge is now the man dishing out well-crafted vengeance.

33. The oner at the elevator took twenty-one takes. “I am so proud of this in this tiny elevator,” he says, adding that one of the stunt performers is actually operating the camera in there which made things easier as he was already familiar with the choreography.

34. As the action moves into the VIP club, the score settles into just a single instrument to partner with the Kid being just a single man fighting against many. It shifts to a more upbeat song by Bloodywood once the Hijra arrive to help fight the dozens of goons.

35. There was minor pressure to have the Kid and Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala) kiss when she saves him from Queenie’s (Ashwini Kalsekar) bullet, but Patel wisely resisted, saying that it’s wrong to have a snog in a movie about sexual violence.

36. A horrendously violent real-life assault was the inciting incident that led Patel to begin writing the script for Monkey Man. The Nirbhaya case occurred in December of 2012 and saw six men assault, rape, and torture a young woman on a bus traveling through South Delhi. She died from her injuries two days later. He recalls the anger he felt, an anger shared by the nation and the world at large, “that was where this script was born, from that level of anger.”

37. Monkey Man is “the ultimate underdog anthem” in Patel’s eyes, and an ode to all the action movies he loved growing up that helped shape him as a performer. He’s referring as much to the character’s journey as to his own as a filmmaker on this very troubled production, one he wasn’t sure at various times would ever see the light of day. His father shared a Tagore quote with him that’s something of a beautiful truth. “I’ve spent many days stringing and unstringing my instrument, and the song I came to sing remains unsung.”

38. Other films referenced by name as varying degrees of influences include Game of Death (1978), Ash Is Purest White (2018), The Green Knight (2021), Embrace of the Serpent (2015), Rocky (1976), Ong Bak (2004), and Enter the Dragon (1973).

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Really proud to have this logo up there. First of many I hope.”

“We just wanted to get underneath the action, inside it, feel the sweat dripping on the camera, and just create chaos.”

“That room smelled like what it looks like.”

“It’s the first time we start to get in this sort of Wong Kar-wai zone with the two of them.”

“When your underwear are wet the whole day, and you’re trying to be serious, and direct a whole crew, a broken hand, sticky blood all over you, it was very, very difficult.”

“I love this moment, a poor man’s Jonathan Glazer I call it.”

“It looks like a P.T. Anderson shot, and I love it.”

“I just love that sort of Terrence Malick-ian…”

“A real Spielberg moment there.”

“I wanted the audience to know this was all me.”

“This is in memory of our gaffer who died during the production from a heart attack, Yudi. And dear Friska who died after production, but still put in so much love and work. And our first casting director Seher Latif who passed away before production commenced.”

Final Thoughts

Monkey Man is both a mixed bag and an impressive debut feature. Yes, it’s too long and messy, but Patel’s sincerity and enthusiasm go a long way in ensuring that enough of the movie lands properly. His commentary showcases that same enthusiasm and sincerity, sometimes to the point of stepping over the other speakers, and it’s easy to be caught up in his spell as he talks about the themes and inspirations at play here. He’s equally enamored with his cast and crew, heaping praise on performances and the work done by people under increasingly troubled circumstances. A good commentary for a good movie.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.