India continues to censor Dev Patel’s Monkey Man despite film being ‘toned down’

The future of Dev Patel’s highly anticipated directorial debut, Monkey Man, continues to be uncertain as India’s film certification body is accused of delaying its release by not holding a screening for its advisory panel, according to reports.

Monkey Man, which premiered at South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) on 11 March and was originally scheduled to be released in India on 19 April, is an action drama and follows the British actor’s unnamed character in a fictional Indian city on a revenge spree against corrupt officials of an Indian right-wing political party.

A report by Indian news daily The Hindu said that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has “thwarted its release without formally banning it” by not screening the film for the advisory panel.

According to India’s Cinematograph (Certification) Rules, 2024, there is a five-day deadline within which a film has to be referred to the Examining Committee, which decides if the film requires any changes need to be made before release. This deadline passed in May and the Monkey Man has still not been screened by the board.

Trouble with Monkey Man’s release began in 2023 when reports emerged in 2023 that the independent feature, which was bought by streaming giant Netflix for $30m in 2021, had been dropped with no clear reason as to why. Film blog World of Reel reported that the portrayal of a “right-wing Hindu nationalist character in the film” had spooked them.

A still from Monkey Man (Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved)
A still from Monkey Man (Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved)

After the film premiered to a standing ovation at SXSW, commentators on X noted that the colours on the flags associated with the antagonist’s political party were changed from saffron in the first trailer to red in the second trailer.

In India, saffron is considered a sacred color associated with Hinduism. In recent times saffron is often attributed to right-wing Hindu nationalist movements or Hindutva groups, and is the colour used by Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Universal Pictures, Monkey Man’s distribution partner, did not release a comment on the change, but online speculation suggested it was done to pre-empt and minimise outrage in India.

The news report also said that Universal Studios had made several cuts from the film, removing key scenes that focused on the close link between religion and politics in India. The version of the film that was released in theatres globally on 5 April and streaming platforms later does not include these scenes.

In April this year, reports of the film’s release being delayed in India broke when Indian ticketing site BookMyShow removed the release date, and a Universal Studios India posted a teaser on X saying it would be “in theatres soon”, with no definite date.

“The film has excessive violence and there are fears that some of its aspects might hurt the sentiments of the section of the audience. Hence, the censor process is expected to take time,” an unnamed source told film website Bollywood Hungama at the time.

Makarand Deshpande, who played the primary antagonist, an influential godman named Baba Shakti, revealed in an interview in April that a pivotal scene which he considered the “soul” of the film was cut for “political” reasons.

Makarand Deshpande at the LA premiere of Monkey Man (2024 Invision)
Makarand Deshpande at the LA premiere of Monkey Man (2024 Invision)

“For the premiere of Monkey Man, I went to California. Before that, Dev Patel said he wants to have a word with me. He said, ‘That’s the scene I love the most, but we had to edit it for some political [reason], you understand’ and he just mumbled,” said Deshpande.

“I kept on looking at him and said, ‘Dev, wasn’t that scene the philosophy of your film?’ He was like, ‘Oh yes, man, but you will still like your role, I am sorry, but you will like it.’

“When I saw the film, I said no problem. But I know that scene…It had that punch…In my understanding, it was the rooh (soul) of the film.”

The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey gave it 4 stars as an action film with shades of John Wick and Enter the Dragon, concluding that it “deserves to be a hit”.