Meet the Kick-Ass Hijras of Monkey Man | Bringing Trans Representation to the Spotlight!

George White had the amazing opportunity to talk to Dayangku Zyana and Pehan Abdul, two trans femme actors, who portray the hijras in Dev Patel’s directorial debut Monkey Man.

Pehan Abdul, Fahad Scale, Reva Marchellin, Vipin Sharma

Dev Patel’s Monkey Man (2024) has already become something of a cult. Hailed as the future of action films, the British actor in his directorial debut has created a unique meld of Bollywood and Hong Kong tropes, a simple revenge thriller. However, for many, the most unique and enchanting aspect is its use of the hijras – the third gender transfeminine community of India. In the film, a group of hijras, headed by the ageing Alpha (veteran male Indian actor Vipin Sharma) rescue our hero, and not only heal him, but form his private army as he takes revenge on the villain who ruined his childhood. 

I was enchanted by the hijras. Being a gender-nonconforming person myself, I found a kindred spirit in these young and old trans femmes, being elegant and kicking ass. I was curious as to who they really were. I knew Vipin Sharma was cis. However, coupled with his natural gravitas, his performance as Alpha felt very genuine to me, with a power unlike the usual bloke in a wig performance (Sharma grew out his own hair). I was reminded of a documentary I saw years ago, on called Aravani Girl, about a subsection of hijra, and there was one elder aravani (who resembled Alpha) who had been castrated in their youth, but clearly had no other surgery, no hormones, nothing like that, but they didn’t need all that to live authentically, and Alpha really reminded of them. They felt like a genuine person, unbound by any kind of gender norms, both a mother and a father.

However, Alpha is accompanied by an army of attractive younger hijras. I was curious as to who these striking performers, all too briefly seen, were. Although the film is set in India, due to Covid restrictions, it was shot in Indonesia.  Ultimately, three trans women were cast .Interestingly, none of these women who were cast to play iconic personifications of Indian femininity and beauty are Desi (from the Indian subcontinent), being Malaysian Dayangku Zyana (Priya), and Indonesians Pehan Abdul (Lakshmi) and Reva Marchellin (Yummy).

Pehan Abdul

Pehan Abdul tells me, “Actually they (were) supposed to shoot in India, but that time is Covid. They have to find another place, and they found in Indonesia instead. All the cast is already set. But they don’t find the right trans yet for the role, so they open casting in Southeast Asia.”  

Dayangku Zyana

Zyana adds, ‘I’m a Malaysian, in fact the only Malaysian cast in the film. Been doing acting/modeling since 2016. Hence connected to some cast searching WhatsApp group etc. Saw one ad in the group requiring an Indian lookalike transwoman for a movie, I submitted my profile,  then required to submit some virtual audition, and I am selected.”

Pehan Abdul

Abdul tells me how she got her part. “Well my background was a fashion stylist on tv commercials (and) make up artist. One of my friends informed me that I should try a casting audition. So I contacted the casting team and I ask them about the line and story, then I sent them a vid.” Zyana adds: “It was (the) lockdown period of both countries at that time, hence there’s a lot off procedures/documentation required so I can leave Malaysia and enter Indonesia.” 

As for the other actors who play the hijras, Zyana explains, “The rest are all actors who are talented to portray hijras. At first I was curious, but when I saw stunt actions that we three cannot do, so that’s why they call for the other actors who can do the stunt.” Telling her I was not surprised but disappointed to see cis men in the roles but understanding of the need for cis stuntmen in those roles , she explains, “I have the same thoughts too initially, but when it comes to film, the production will hire whoever is talented for the role and available during the shooting time. What Dev did was have the faces of us, the three real hijras on the screen, while the rest of them only represent the volume of hijras that the film wants to show.” 

Reva Marchellin and Pehan Abdul

Pehan Abdul adds, “Well, my honest opinion is if supposed to be played by real hijras, it is more interesting. But that time, the conditions is not as smooth as we expected. We should compromise and being creative, as long as they can do good as they can.”

Zyana, who describes her character as a ‘strong one’ is positive on working with Patel: ” Dev is aware who is the real hijra and who is not. And he’s very nice towards us as well.” She also hopes the film will launch her abroad. “For the film to give me more acting jobs in the future. Preferably a positive role. Unlike the role offered to me in Malaysia, always prostitute, etc. so typical.” She also hopes to be a heroine to trans girls, and indeed women in general who see the film, despite not having taken part in the memorable fight scene involving the women. 

Abdul adds, “We all help each other, all (the) team work well together though, the director, the other cast.”

From L to R: Agus Maulana, Fahad Scale, Keren Subramany and Pehan Abdul.

Abdul’s character, Lakshmi is the broken bird of the hijras.  About her character, “the cute one, the sweet  one, always protected by their sisters,” Abdul tells me, that while she was the eldest of the three authentically trans femme hijra actors, her character is “the youngest one. A rookie. Then one day, I go out, selling stuff like flowers to get money to survive. And some people beat me up. And everyone get so sad and angry. But Kid (Patel) helps us to find money and they can take me to the hospital. And this why we help Kid fight at the end for revenge.” 

When I ask if she’s supposed to be a representation of the many hijra teenage runaways, she confides, “Maybe from the movie side they change the character, I’m not that sure. “Abdul also loved her outfits, “I loved all the costumes. (It) feels like I’m in a different world when I wear it, mostly the fighting dress.”
What, the jewelled lehenga battle dress? “Yesss it’s amazing, mostly when I dance and rounding and rounding and never stop and the skirt open up and like a carpet flying.” Abdul enthuses.

Fahad Scale, Pehan Abdul, Quaraish Attamini and Agus Maulana

And that is the thing. Even some of the cis actors – Reva and Pehan’s cis male friend and fellow stylist Fahad Scale (who plays Pooja) joined in – and especially stuntmen in their Diwali outfits are strikingly graceful and beautiful, notably stuntman Agus Mulana, that I found them inspirational figures who should ideally inspire cis men to be that feminine and beautiful. To be strong, tough and kicking arse but do it in a face full of makeup, braided hair and wearing a gorgeous lehenga. Pehan Abdul tells me that all the actors were given dance training, and that shows.

Wigging (stuntmen dragging up to double for women) is still commonplace in Asian films, but this didn’t feel like that. I almost feel the stuntmen deserve to be made honorary trans people, that this feels different to the usual ‘cis man plays trans’. It feels like they really became women for the film, with fans all over the internet complimenting them on their beauty. That in this time of the Cass Report, increasing US bills limiting trans rights, and with all kinds of gender fluidity being shunned by even those who claim to be for it (e.g. Stella O’Malley saying that lesbians are turned on by wearing men’s suits), Monkey Man‘s hijras should serve as a template for a new kind of queer action hero. 

As Pehan Abdul tells me, “Even though we’ve never been to India, as a trans life, I don’t think that’s a big difference. At the end the things that we are fighting for are quite the same though. We all need to be seen and heard as human being, as same as others, they can’t deny as is a part of society.”

I dedicate this article to Marchellin, Abdul and Zyana, plus the cis actors and stuntmen for bravely and suitably incarnating a tribe of strong, independent, beautiful women. 

Monkey Man is currently playing in Irish cinemas.

Image Credits to Pehan Abdul and Dayangku Zyana.