How the Hindu Deity Hanuman Inspired Dev Patel’s ‘Monkey Man’

The story of the half-human, half-monkey god mirrors the journey of the protagonist in Patel’s directorial debut

A statue of Hanuman
“For me, [Hanuman] was also a hero that lost faith in himself,” says director and star Dev Patel. “He didn’t have courage at one point and needed to be reminded of who he was.”  Amith Nag Photography via Getty Images

In India, monkeys aren’t always viewed particularly fondly. As Philip Lutgendorf, an emeritus historian at the University of Iowa, wrote in a 1997 paper, the animals “are most often treated as annoying pests who are chased away with sticks and stones. They are laughed at for their (unsuccessful) mimicry of human ways and disparaged for their mischievous, often destructive activity and their promiscuous and highly visible sexuality.”

But, Hanuman, a half-monkey, half-human Hindu deity, is an exception.

“​​It doesn’t matter what denomination [you belong to], what part of the subcontinent … that you come from, there is a sense of affinity and oneness … with Hanuman,” says Yogi Trivedi, a scholar of media and religion at Columbia University.

Monkey Man | Official Trailer

Hanuman’s virtuous character and supernatural abilities are chronicled in everything from religious texts to comic books to animated television shows.

“He has immense, innate strength,” says Lavanya Vemsani, a historian at Shawnee State University. “If he sets his mind to it, he can do it. … If he needed to help somebody else, he would do anything.”

On its surface, Dev Patel’s new movie, Monkey Man, appears to be a classic tale of a vengeance-seeking underdog. But at its core, the film—in theaters in the United States now—is a story inspired by Hanuman.

The making of Monkey Man

In October 2018, Patel, an actor known for starring in Slumdog Millionaire, Lion and The Green Knight, announced that he would make his directorial debut with an action revenge thriller titled Monkey Man. The film, which stars Patel in the leading role of Kid, was set to begin filming in Mumbai in spring 2019. But the Covid-19 pandemic postponed production, and filming only wrapped in March 2021. Netflix initially acquired the movie’s distribution rights but later dropped the project, leading Jordan Peele, director of Get Out and Nope, to step in to ensure Monkey Man received a theatrical release through his company, Monkeypaw Productions.

The movie follows Patel’s character, Kid, a young man who fights nightly in an underground fight club while wearing a gorilla mask. Plagued by suppressed rage and intense trauma, Kid discovers a way to infiltrate the corrupt elite class of Mumbai and unleash a campaign of vengeance for the murder of his mother years prior.

Posting on Reddit last week, Patel said he learned about Hanuman from his father and grandfather, who told him the stories that inspired Monkey Man. “My father wears a chain around his neck with little Hanuman statues on it,” the actor wrote.

Patel expanded on the film’s influences in an interview with talk show host Jimmy Fallon, saying that Kid’s journey mirrors Hanuman’s quest for self-realization. “Hanuman … represents nobility and strength and courage,” Patel said. “He’s very similar to Superman in the sense that he splits his chest in the iconography and flies. … For me, he was also a hero that lost faith in himself. He didn’t have courage at one point and needed to be reminded of who he was.”

Hanuman’s origins

Hanuman appears in Hindu literature as a central figure in the Ramayana, an epic traditionally attributed to the poet Valmiki. The text tells the story of the divine prince Rama’s journey to rescue his wife, Sita, who is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. Discrepancies exist across different versions of the Ramayana, but the basic sequence of events is relatively consistent.

During his search for Sita, Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the principal Hindu deities) enters into an alliance with the king of the monkeys, who orders his general, Hanuman, to help the prince. Hanuman crosses the sea between India and Lanka, Ravana’s island fortress, in a single leap.

Hanuman stands before Rama and Sita
Hanuman stands before Rama and Sita. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

After finding Sita and identifying himself as Rama’s messenger, Hanuman is captured by Ravana’s soldiers, who set his tail ablaze. But the fire doesn’t harm Hanuman, who escapes and uses his tail to burn down Lanka. After a long battle, Rama kills Ravana with an arrow to the chest.

Throughout the Ramayana, Hanuman showcases his extraordinary strength and bravery. When Rama’s brother faints in the heat of battle, Hanuman is sent to find a plant that will wake him up. It only grows on a specific mountain in the Himalayas, so Hanuman flies all the way there. “Then he can’t recognize which plant it [is], ... so he decides to bring the whole mountain,” Vemsani says.

When Rama presents Hanuman with a reward, he rejects the offer, wanting only to remain in the prince’s service. To prove his loyalty, Hanuman slices his chest open, revealing a painted picture of Rama and Sita on his heart. Rama cures this self-inflicted wound and blesses Hanuman with immortality.

“Whenever Rama is portrayed in one of the shrines, you will see [Hanuman] right next to [him],” Trivedi says. Hanuman “might be kneeling near Rama’s feet, [or] he might be sitting on the side and looking up at Rama.”

A statue of Hanuman splitting his chest open to reveal an image of Rama and Sita
Hanuman is often depicted splitting his chest open to reveal an image of Rama and Sita. Murali Aithal Photography via Getty Images

Hanuman also appears in other ancient texts, including the epic Mahabharata and various Puranas (a genre of Hindu literature).

“The Hanuman Purana, the story of Hanuman’s birth, names Vayu, the god of the wind, as the monkey god’s father,” notes National Geographic. “Hanuman’s mother, Anjana, was an apsara (like a nymph or fairy) who was transformed into a monkey by an angry sage. The sage said Anjana could return to her original form if she birthed a powerful son. She was successful with Hanuman, whose strength [was] apparent since childhood.”

The monkey deity’s name originates from a story in which Hanuman, then a child, mistakes the sun for a fruit and attempts to grab it. While Hanuman is flying up to the sun, Indra, the king of the gods, strikes him with a thunderbolt, breaking his jaw and sending him hurtling to the ground. In Sanskrit, hanu means jaw, while man translates to prominent or disfigured.

A devotional image of Hanuman carrying a mountaintop with medicinal herbs to Rama and his brother
A devotional image of Hanuman carrying a mountaintop with medicinal herbs to Rama and his brother Metropolitan Museum of Art under public domain

Hanuman’s religious significance

Hanuman is one of the most widely worshipped figures in Hinduism, with devotees asking him to help them overcome health issues and deter evil.

Chanting the “Hanuman Chalisa,” a 40-verse hymn praising the monkey deity, is one of the main ways in which Hindus worship Hanuman. Attributed to 16th-century poet Tulsidas, the hymn describes the god’s abilities, virtues and acts of service to Rama in the Ramayana. A wide range of musical renditions of the “Hanuman Chalisa” exist.

“If you go to parts of North India or South India, it is almost impossible to find villages where [virtually] every child is not being taught the chanting or the singing of the ‘Hanuman Chalisa,’” Trivedi says. “Hindus believe that [the hymn] helps them ward [off] evil [and] face difficulties in life. [It] gives one strength, courage, bravado to take on the problems of this world and those of the next.”

Hanuman Jayanti, a Hindu festival that marks the birth of Hanuman, has been observed for more than 2,000 years. Indian states celebrate it on different days based on their individual calendars, but the tradition is largely the same across the country: Devotees seek Hanuman’s protection and honor him as a deity who provides protection against evil.

A person dressed as Hanuman during the Hanuman Jayanti festival in New Delhi in 2023
A person dressed as Hanuman during the Hanuman Jayanti festival in New Delhi in 2023 Pradeep Gaur / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

“It is believed that Lord Hanuman is always present where people chant the name of Lord Rama, so devotees recite [the] Ramayana on this auspicious day and seek his blessings,” writes the Times of India.

Hanuman’s significance in Hinduism extends beyond hymns and celebrations to temples and murtis, or sacred depictions of Hindu deities. Hanuman murtis can be found in various locations across India, including temples, homes and roadsides.

“Freestanding Hanuman images are also very, very common, and they are like large statues,” often standing more than 100 feet tall, Vemsani says.

Depictions of Hanuman aren’t confined to India. In 2020, a 25-foot Hanuman murti was installed in Hockessin, Delaware. The largest Hanuman murti outside of India is located in Trinidad and Tobago and stands 85 feet tall. Hanuman temples can be found across the U.S., from San Diego to Piscataway, New Jersey.

An 80-foot-tall statue of Hanuman in Hangalur, India
An 80-foot-tall statue of Hanuman in Hangalur, India Amith Nag Photography via Getty Images

Hanuman’s relatability

Hanuman embodies a unique duality, “because he’s thought of as a deity, as a divine being, and at the same time as a devotee, a believer,” says Trivedi. He continuously serves Rama and displays unwavering loyalty to the prince, earning immortality as a reward.

“This [dual nature] is the beauty of why Hanuman has survived, and why he is so accessible and so relevant to Hindus and non-Hindus today,” Trivedi adds. “This dichotomy between someone who is divine but also mortal … is a big part of Hanuman’s fascination.”

Hanuman’s relatability can also be attributed to his half-monkey status. “Monkeys are liminal,” says Lutgendorf in an interview. “They’re in-between creatures. … They straddle the boundary between the animal realm, the human realm.” Hanuman, therefore, is “an intercessor, a kind of middleman.”

An illustration of Hanuman carrying Rama on his shoulders
An illustration of Hanuman carrying Rama on his shoulders Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

While Hanuman is worshipped by Hindus across socioeconomic levels, his liminal status means he’s an especially relatable figure for India’s rapidly growing middle class.

“The middle class accepts every form of divine intervention but increasingly turns to Hanuman, an upwardly mobile god who apes his betters and betters his votaries by delivering both the gods and the goods,” wrote Lutgendorf in his 1997 paper.

The country’s middle class faces significant challenges, among them financial struggles, access to health care, education costs and a lack of social mobility. To some, Hanuman represents the ability to persevere through these difficulties and prosper.

As Lutgendorf wrote, “Both in its upward mobility and in its daily struggle to secure and hold onto the good things in life, the middle class needs pluck and protection—qualities Hanuman clearly embodies.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.