‘Monkey Man’ turns saffron to red as India release uncertain

Directed by and starring Dev Patel, ‘Monkey Man’ has made at least one small change in an apparent bid to avoid upsetting Indian audiences

April 05, 2024 02:15 pm | Updated 04:42 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Cast member Dev Patel attends a premiere for the film Monkey Man in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on April 3, 2024

Cast member Dev Patel attends a premiere for the film Monkey Man in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on April 3, 2024 | Photo Credit: Reuters

Hollywood film Monkey Man, a revenge action drama starring the British actor Dev Patel, has been edited to change saffron political banners to red, social media users noted as the film’s pre-release publicity was under way over the past month. The film is also directed by Mr. Patel, who launched his career with the 2009 film Slumdog Millionaire. Monkey Man was originally purchased by Netflix, which the Hollywood portal World of Reel reported passed on releasing the film because of themes that could offend right wing viewers in India.

The subtle edit — which emerged when the same shot was used in two different trailers — underscores the pressures to which Hollywood is increasingly succumbing in India, a market which accounts for a small but growing share of its global earnings. This sort of treatment is similar to changes made to access the influential Chinese movie market. In the 2012 remake of Red Dawn, for instance, the war action film initially had the Chinese army as antagonists — this was edited to North Koreans in post-production. Hollywood studios work closely with Chinese censors to release films in the country, which has a small but lucrative quota for foreign films each year. The government carefully screens each film for themes that may be upsetting to audiences (or unsettling for the government).

Venki Manickam, a Texas-based engineer who caught a preview screening of Monkey Man in Austin, confirmed that some of the saffron banners had been changed to red in the film. “But the flags are still saffron,” Mr. Manickam said. “That looks exactly like BJP insignia.” 

Mr. Manickam described characters and institutions that mirrored real life politicians, conglomerates and godmen. The film’s universe is overall fictional though, Mr. Manickam stressed: the political climate depicted Hindus and Muslims united — with visceral prejudice against Christians. At some points in the film, an arrogant female politician makes abusive phone calls to someone named Rahul, he said. “It’s a pretty interesting name,” Mr. Manickam quipped. 

“You can’t claim that this film is Hinduphobic,” Mr. Manickam said. Mr. Patel “shut down that avenue pretty hard” by assuming the persona of Hanuman in a just pursuit for revenge. 

It is unclear what other changes have been made to Monkey Man in order to facilitate its release in India. Universal Pictures India has published trailers online for the film in English and Hindi with a release date of April 19; however, more recent trailers it has published do not carry a release date at all. The Central Board of Film Certification has not yet cleared the film for exhibition in India.  

The comedian turned hit director Jordan Peele’s Los Angeles-based label Monkey Paw Productions had picked up the film after Netflix declined to stream the film. Mr. Peele, a publicist for Monkey Paw Productions, and Universal Pictures did not respond to queries from The Hindu on what other changes have been made to Monkey Man, and whether these changes have been applied globally.

International entertainment companies have become more wary of the Indian government’s sharp reactions to their content, sometimes choosing to avoid controversy altogether. For instance, since there is no law prohibiting uncensored cuts of Indian films being streamed online, Netflix would routinely stream the pre-theatrical cuts of films online. The firm no longer does so, joining platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar.

As far as Monkey Man is concerned, an Indian release — at least one where the film is intact — is not assured. But box office estimates show that it has earned over $12 million in ticket sales for its opening weekend, a collection that has already exceeded its production budget. 

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