Monkey Business in a Banana Republic: On Dev Patel’s Monkey Man

One of the first things that strikes you when you land in Delhi is that vanar and Hanuman-inspired imagery—drawing from Hindu mythology and texts such as the Ramayana—is everywhere. If you’re catching the Delhi Metro, you won’t miss the 108-foot Hanuman statue near Karol Bagh that has doubled as a makeshift ‘establishing shot’ to introduce Delhi in numerous Bollywood films such as Delhi-6 (2009) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), among others. 

I venture on to the rooftop of my Airbnb near Kalkaji in South Delhi district and am greeted by a sea of saffron flags depicting an ‘angry Hanuman’ fluttering from countless public buildings, street poles, shops and houses. It’s election season in India—and with Narendra Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) seeking a third term in office—there isn’t a street corner, public statue or building that’s not been tagged saffron, wherever you go in Delhi. 

Emboldened and tacitly supported by the (BJP), Hindu extremist groups such as the Bajrang Dal have co-opted this image of an ‘angry Hanuman’—first conceived by a 25-year-old Kerala-based artist in 2015 as a counterpoint to Hanuman’s traditional interpretation as a gentle soul in selfless service of Lord Rama—to be reframed as a representative of Hindutva ideology and Hindu pride. It’s important to note the timeline of how this co-opting takes place: the BJP comes to power in 2014, the ‘angry Hanuman’ first appears on the scene in 2015, and by 2018, the image has been completely co-opted and rolled out by right-wing Hindu extremist groups, a year before Modi comes back for a second term in 2019. 

This ‘angry Hanuman’ has a darkness to his personality—he is hyper-masculine, deliberately terrifying and lacks any semblance of gentleness. It matches the hypermasculine façade that Modi likes to present to his voter base domestically—a necessarily aggressive leader who will restore ‘lost’ Hindu pride and ‘put Hindus first’. The correlation is simple but effective—Modi and the BJP are the new-age Hanumans; hence a vote for the BJP is a necessary way of showing devotion to Hanuman as a proud Hindu. 

With the ongoing election season expected to last six weeks in India, both Hanuman and Modi are everywhere. Everywhere, except at the movies, where there’s more of Modi than ever before, but when you look for Hanuman, things get complicated. 

Monkey Man Stirs Trouble

One of the most anticipated films of the year, Dev Patel’s Monkey Man premiered at SXSW and released in Australian theatres earlier this month, April 4th. Initially, the film was tentatively expected to theatrically release on 19 April in India—the very day that elections kicked off in the country—but a theatrical release has since been indefinitely postponed. However, this isn’t the first roadblock that Patel’s directorial venture has faced in seeing the light of day. 

As early as February 2022, Netflix announced Monkey Man as part of its release slate for that year, while post-production was still underway for the film. However, alarm bells started ringing when there was no sign of the film despite the announcement. By mid-2023, it was revealed that Netflix had decided to return the film to its producers, without any indication as to what prompted this move. Finally, at the beginning of the year, we got the first trailer, and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw productions came on board with plans for an international, theatrical rollout. While audiences in Australia can watch the film in theatres right now, and the film dropped on PVOD services in the United Services earlier this week, there is no clarity as to when exactly—if at all—Indian audiences would be able to watch a film that’s based in India, draws from Hindu mythology, and stars a bunch of actors from Indian backgrounds in prominent roles. 

Those who have been lucky enough to watch Monkey Man can take an educated guess as to the reasons behind what may have prompted Netflix to drop the film from its slate. The film follows Patel’s unnamed protagonist as he seeks to avenge the death of his family in a fictionalised version of Mumbai. The film draws on Hindu mythology and more specifically, the attributes that the character of Hanuman symbolises—courage, sacrifice and standing up to power to protect the oppressed—to weave an action film that pays homage to Hong Kong, Korean and Indonesian martial arts cinema. 

One of the main antagonists of the film is a religious leader who uses his influence for political power. His followers wear saffron or bhagwa, the colour most readily associated with the BJP and the Hindutva ideology, that seeks to justify Hindu supremacy and reframe India into a dominant Hindu nation-state. Without going into spoilers, the catalyst that sets Patel’s character on the path of revenge can be interpreted as a surface-level indictment of Modi’s slogan of development or vikaas, that’s being promised at the cost of millions of indigenous people of India being displaced from their lands.This is of course, without taking into consideration that a sex worker in the film is named ‘Sita’, a name that recalls the wife of Lord Rama from the Hindu mythological epic Ramayana, a correlation which definitely would irk some or the other extremist right-wing Hindu group in the country if the film were screened.

Many critics from South Asian backgrounds have convincingly argued that the film’s indictment of the Hindutva ideology doesn’t quite land and is too broad to consider having any serious bite. However, we must consider two important things. Firstly, Hanuman and what he stands for in modern-day India has been completely reframed. This ‘angry Hanuman’ is more likely to be the oppressor than stand up to power on behalf of the oppressed. This ‘new’ Hanuman is more likely to crush dissent than empower it. And secondly, if Modi is the equivalent of this ‘angry Hanuman’—the protector of Hindu pride, valour and deep-seated insecurity—then a criticism of Modi’s policies, even if it lacks bite, is ultimately an attack on Hanuman and Hindu mythology. 

In an election season where Modi is using one’s religious identity as the basis of his election campaign and deliberately feeding a make-believe victim-complex of majoritarian Hindus to win a third term, a film with even a feeble punch against Hindutva policies may be interpreted as a personal attack against Hindu pride. There has been speculation, as reported in World of Reel, that Netflix dropped the idea of distributing the film because of concerns around the portrayal of the above-mentioned antagonist, which could be easily perceived as criticising the BJP. Netflix has declined to comment, but if this indeed true, it wouldn’t be the first time a streaming service has buckled to the pressure of not disturbing the status quo in India. 

Bollywood and streaming platforms toe the line

With BJP’s second term in office in 2019 came the influx of what can best be termed as ‘propaganda films’ from Bollywood—films which were shoddily put together in terms of technical craft, and were more concerned about pushing an ideological bent that complemented the BJP’s talking points, than any semblance of nuance in their storytelling. 

Film critic Uday Bhatia has conducted a deep-dive into how these propaganda films, starting from Uri: The Surgical Strike in 2019 up until the present day, have extolled the message that the BJP wants to get out there to its voter base. These films revolve around certain tired archetypes. Firstly, pushing the idea of a new, ‘confident’ India—which predicates the notion that prior to the BJP coming to power, India was an unconfident nation seen as a pushover. Secondly, the sheer barrage of (badly cast, if I may note) doppelgangers of Modi in these films, have added to his cult of personality; an implicit seed is planted that he is responsible for this image ‘makeover’ that India is currently undergoing. And finally, these films also—perhaps most insidiously—act as tacit endorsement of BJP’s policies. A film such as Article 370 can be read as offering a favourable reading of the decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that provided a special status to the territory of Jammu & Kashmir. 

A flurry of more such ideological films, such as The Sabarmati Report—revisiting the 2022 religiously-motivated Godhra Riots in Gujarat when Modi was the state’s Chief Minister—have either been pushed back to release until after the elections end, or they have been indefinitely delayed. But, this seems to be too little, too late. What is perhaps more important is to note that apart from 2-3 of these films that have become runaway hits at the box office, most of the others have been outrightly rejected by the Indian audience. And yet, lots of money continues to be pumped into these films that promise no real formula for success. To add on to former Australian Attorney-General George Brandis’ infamous phrase, “People do have a right to be bigots, but equally, we then have the right to call them out for their bigotry.”

It was believed that the advent of streaming and OTT platforms would open the floodgates in terms of creative expression for Indian creators, as streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon saw the potential of a massive market and looked to entice directors keen to challenge the status quo. The first season of Sacred Games (2018), bringing together the directorial talents of Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, adapted from the 2006 novel by Vikram Chandra of the same name showed glimmers of hope—a snippet of what Bollywood’s best were capable of if not constrained by the shackles of archaic Indian censorship laws that continue to apply to theatrical releases. However, this success and hope was short-lived. 

Soon after, fearing the antagonism of the BJP government and viewers who might engage in legal action against the streamers because their religious sentiments were hurt, the platforms started to engage in pre-emptive self-censorship. Monkey Man is not the first time Netflix has shown interest in a project and then dropped the idea completely. In 2021, Netflix greenlit a three-part adaptation of Suketu Mehta’s book ‘Maximum City’ to be helmed by Kashyap, to then shelve the project. Set amidst the backdrop of Mumbai, the book explores Hindu bigotry, and the project had the potential to ruffle feathers of the BJP government that’s been cracking down on dissenting narratives on streaming services in India.There are other examples of this. Netflix also commissioned Dibakar Banerjee’s Tees—that looks at the past, present and future of different parts of India through the eyes of a Muslim family—but never released the film. Amazon Prime India has shelved Gormint, a political satire in the vein of Veep. Netflix also relinquished the rights to Vikramaditya Motwane’s documentary about India’s Emergency Period between 1975-77, when civil liberties were suspended by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The list is long and despairing. 

As of 2024, the censorship and control of streaming services in India is complete. If you want to watch Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer on JioCinema, for example, you will be watching a 173-minute version instead of the original 180-minute cut, because it’s sped up. The annoying ‘No Smoking’ ads that appear whenever a character smokes during theatrical releases of Indian films have been transposed here for the streaming version. And just as an icing on the cake, any scenes with nudity have also been censored. 

It will take more than just one Hanuman—angry or otherwise—to save Bollywood, Hindi-language cinema more broadly, and the current state of streaming services, from the clutches of political subservience in India. I wish I knew what the chant for this ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ was.

Director: Dev Patel

Cast: Dev Patel, Pitobash, Sobhita Dhulipala

Writers: Dev Patel, Paul Angunawela, John Collee

Producers: Ian Cooper, Christine Haebler, Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Anjay Nagpal, Dev Patel, Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, Samarth Sahni, Jomon Thomas

Music: Jed Kurzel

Cinematography: Sharone Meir

Editing: Joe Galdo, Dávid Jancsó, Tim Murrell

Streaming Availability:

Monkey Man is playing in Australian cinemas right now. It’s available via PVOD services in the United States. 

Virat Nehru

Virat is an Indian-Australian film critic passionate about Indian cinema. His work has appeared in SBS, Screenhub, Indian Link, Rough Cut and High on Films. He is the Founding Committee Member of the Sydney Science Fiction Film Festival.

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