Dev Patel’s “Monkey Man” is nothing short of revolutionary for queer South Asian representation

"Monkey Man" movie poster
Photo: "Monkey Man" movie poster

Contains mild spoilers for “Monkey Man

In South Asian societies, cultural and religious norms often prioritize heteronormativity and uphold conservative values, contributing to the suppression of queer identities.

Convergence from these norms can lead to ostracization and vilification, with these cemented expectations often leaving little room for the authentic expression of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Familial honor and reputation are also highly valued, compelling many queer individuals to hide their identities to avoid bringing shame to their families.

These challenges are demonstrably evident in the way queer South Asian people have been represented in media and film. Throughout cinematic history, South Asian queerness has often been depicted through exoticized and stereotypical lenses, reinforcing harmful narratives and perpetuating misconceptions. Queer South Asian characters have frequently been reduced to one-dimensional caricatures, serving as mere plot devices or objects of ridicule rather than fully realized individuals with agency and depth.

And yet, there is a beacon of hope. 

Dev Patel’s recently released film, Monkey Man, is a groundbreaking revelation for the South Asian queer community. Through the lens of a prolific South Asian director, the film fearlessly confronts the pervasive stigma surrounding queerness within our community. 

In Monkey Man, a young unnamed man played by Patel seeks vengeance against those who destroyed his village and murdered his mother. The film draws inspiration from the mythological tales of Hanuman. Through underground fighting and alliances with marginalized communities, Patel’s character navigates a treacherous world of corruption and power, ultimately confronting his enemies to reclaim justice and honor his mother’s memory.

With unapologetic audacity, Patel champions the visibility of queer and trans characters, ushering them from the margins to the forefront of the narrative and offering a profound reflection of South Asian experiences while navigating the intricate intersection of cultural heritage and queer identity. This is a landmark achievement in global cinema.

Central to the film’s narrative is the portrayal of the hijra community, a marginalized group often relegated to the fringes of Indian society. Hijras, individuals who identify outside the traditional male-female binary and who are legally recognized in India as a ‘third gender’, have long faced discrimination and societal stigma in South Asia. Despite their historical presence in the region, hijras have been subjected to exclusion and violence, with limited opportunities for social and economic advancement.

In Monkey Man the depiction of the hijra community goes beyond stereotypes, presenting them as integral to the protagonist’s journey, like when Patel’s character is saved and nursed back to health by hijras during his quest for revenge. Patel fighting off members of a fascist police force with trans women warriors backing him up? If that’s not incredible filmmaking and profound representation, I’m not sure what is.

This representation not only sheds light on the resilience and strength of the hijra community but also serves as a catalyst for broader conversations about inclusion and acceptance in mainstream cinema.

And yet, even amidst this growing visibility of these minority identities, Monkey Man faces significant hurdles on a global scale. 

Set against the backdrop of India and featuring substantial dialogue in Hindi, the film has yet to receive classification from India’s Central Board of Film Certification. This delay is likely attributed to the film’s biting satire of Hindutva politics – a Hindu nationalist ideology that is widely prevalent in India – and its portrayal of the socioeconomic challenges faced by hijra communities. Hindutva politics, with its emphasis on Hindu supremacy and conservative values, has often marginalized queer individuals, particularly ones from non-Hindu backgrounds.

It isn’t just the film industry experiencing these challenges. A broader reflection of South Asian queerness is still needed within all creative industries. Nonbinary musician and spiritualist Nik Thakkar, known by their professional name NEO 10Y, spoke to LGBTQ Nation about their experiences navigating the music and fashion industry as a queer person of Indian origin. 

“In the UK and US, queer South Asians are the least represented minority in entertainment, film, music and drag,” they said. “I think it is getting better, but there is still a long way to go. We have still never had a UK South Asian drag artist on Drag Race, and no one can name a South Asian pop star. But that’s also my purpose. There are still cliche storylines and stereotypes to be overcome from a wider South Asian perspective in the mainstream too with the heteronormative, or inherently dishonest, mainstream.” 

Even pop star Charli XCX, who is of mixed Gujarati Indian origin and has a large queer fanbase, finds herself having to confront and defend her heritage in the face of racist remarks. 

Why are we so hidden? And when we are finally represented and out in the open, why are we shut down by external forces that want to erase us?

Patel’s dedication to showcasing marginalized voices in his film not only breaks barriers but also serves as a critical commentary on the oppressive structures that marginalize queer individuals within South Asian communities. If more cisgender heterosexual creators embraced such narratives, the creative world would undoubtedly become a more inclusive space where every South Asian individual feels validated and empowered in their identity.

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