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Indian actor Vipin Sharma is earning global acclaim for playing a trans character in Dev Patel‘s feature directorial debut “Monkey Man.”

Sharma plays Alpha, the leader of a trans community known in India as hijras, who is instrumental in providing a new lease on life to Patel’s character when he’s down and out in “Monkey Man.”

Aamir Khan’s “Taare Zameen Par” (2007) was Sharma’s breakthrough role, and since then he has won plaudits for “Paan Singh Tomar,” “Gangs of Wasseypur” and “Shahid” (all 2012), “Raanjhanaa” (2013), “Raman Raghav 2.0” (2016), “Paatal Lok” (2020) and “Dear Jassi” (2023).

When director Anthony Maras offered Sharma a role in “Hotel Mumbai” (2018), starring Patel, the actor accepted. “He said, ‘It’s not a very big part, but it’s a very interesting part.’ I immediately took it because it was going to make me meet Dev who I really wanted to meet,” Sharma tells Variety. Sharma had a small scene with Patel in “Hotel Mumbai” and they had a brief chat.

“Hotel Mumbai” producer Jomon Thomas stayed in touch with Sharma and called him in for an audition in Mumbai when he was setting up “Monkey Man.” Patel and Sharma then read some lines together.

“Something clicked right away as soon as we met the second time. First time, we had a bit of a formal chat. But second time, we just clicked and we chatted,” Sharma says, adding that he had a callback immediately and was cast. “He said, ‘This is your role, I really want you to do this role.’ And later on, he told me when he saw ‘Hotel Mumbai’ in London, he saw my scene and he immediately thought that I’m going to be in his film.”

Sharma adds, “It’s very interesting that from the ‘Hotel Mumbai’ small little scene, he saw me as somebody just completely the opposite of me. I am a male; he saw me as a female character, which was quite amazing actually, that he saw something about me that he thought I will be good to play this role.”

Sharma went to Batam, the Indonesian island where “Monkey Man” was shot, a fortnight in advance. He had even more prep time when Patel broke his foot and the shoot was pushed back by a month.

“What I did was I grew my nails; I painted them. I already had long hair because for seven months I didn’t have a haircut,” Sharma says. “I thought because it’s a transgender character, probably Dev is going to give me a wig, but as soon as he saw my own hair he said, ‘This looks great.’ I used to roam around in a petticoat.”

“Monkey Man” is an action-packed drama where Patel’s character seeks revenge after losing his mother. “Dev had told me that I’m a spiritual guide, somebody who takes care of him. Our relationship in the film, it’s almost like as if the mother that he lost, I become the mother in the film for him,” Sharma says. “There’s something about Dev that I also feel very caring about him. That’s already there in me. I just used that in a way because I already admired him, love him and think very highly of him. Some soulful connections cannot be explained… it’s just that simple, pure human bond that happens, I think that’s what I have with him. And that’s what I guess reflects in the film also, because during the scenes, I always felt that about him.”

Vipin Sharma at the ‘Monkey Man’ premiere in Los Angeles.
Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

Sharma was present at the film’s world premiere at SXSW in March, which he describes as “crazy,” with people “screaming and shouting in excitement” and “crying and laughing.”

“Dev came on stage, he just couldn’t control himself,” Sharma says. “There was a five-minute standing ovation. Dev was so emotional, he turned around, wiped his tears, he was completely overwhelmed.”

SXSW was where Sharma saw the film for the first time. “I was blown away. I personally don’t like so much of action and gore, but I felt this is not,” he says. “I told Dev [that] I don’t see it as a violent film… I see it as a very gentle film. It’s not violent, it’s anger, it’s suppressed anger for the marginalized people who are not treated with dignity — it’s that anger I see. So, I call it a very fragile film.”

Sharma declined to comment about the politics in the film or about its potential reception in India, where it is yet to release.

The actor is now looking forward to the release of Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s “Dear Jassi,” which bowed at Toronto 2023, where it won the Platform Prize. “Just by being on the set with Tarsem was another masterclass in filmmaking,” Sharma says. “I’ve never seen such constant involvement of a filmmaker. And the way he creates his scenes, he’s like a magician, musician. He listens to everything so carefully, his camera movements are so well worked out. He just creates this universe and those moments that are so real and so gut-wrenching in that film.”

Coming up for Sharma is Apoorv Singh Karki’s “Bhaiyya Ji,” where he stars alongside Manoj Bajpayee. “It’s another action thriller, another revenge story that has very high octane fight scenes. I think Manoj is also trying to reinvent himself and create something that is larger than life, something that I don’t think he’s attempted in terms of an action thriller. And he’s also worked very hard for that,” Sharma says.

Bajpayee also leads Season 3 of Prime Video series “The Family Man,” where Sharma has a recurring role.

Noireeta Dasgupta’s gender dysphoria short “Night Queen,” co-produced by and starring Sharma, is currently in post.

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