Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Shubham Saraf, Fayssal Bazzi, Antonia Desplat
Creators: Eric Warren Singer, Steve Lightfoot
Shantaram which is based on Gregory David Robert’s best-selling novel from 2003 gets adapted into a twelve-episode season on AppleTV+. The series follows Dale Conti aka Lindsay Ford (Charlie Hunnam), an escaped Australian inmate who flees to Bombay in the 1980s in the hopes of losing himself. Once there, he finds himself drawn into a world where the lines between moralities are blurred as he is surrounded by people who are saints and sinners all at once. In a city where he escapes to find redemption, Lin finds himself being lured into temptations that could only add to his troubles which mainly also stem from his brewing relationship with Karla (Antonia Desplat). In the bustling city, Lin also forms a strange brotherhood with Prabhu (Shubham Saraf) who takes on the role of being the angel on his back amid the sinister experiences and the dark past that he constantly finds himself running from. Lin takes on many roles in his journey from becoming the saviour offering medical help to those living in th Sagarwada slums to an unlikely son and at times a pawn to the city’s most-dreaded man, crime lord Khader Khan (Alexander Siddig). Will Lin succeed in wiping off the sins of his past as he escapes in the crowds of Bombay or will he embrace the dark side in the seedy underbelly is what is left to see.
The adaptation of Shantaram has always been a cause of concern for me considering how the 936-page book tells a story that seems fascinatingly fictional yet bitingly real all at once. Gregory David Roberts’ experiences in 1980s Bombay became a window for several outsiders like him to India and I have in my lifetime met several white tourists hopping to the city to soak into the spirit of the city after reading about it in the novel. Bombay, (now Mumbai) is one of the biggest characters of the book, probably even bigger than Lin because it’s the city that’s the driving force in his journey towards redemption. In the new show based on the book, the makers try to remain as faithful as they can to the source material and paint a picture of Bombay the way that it was probably exactly viewed by an outsider. The show finds itself laden with David Roberts’ heavy commentary on his own life through voiceovers of Hunnam who seems like the right choice to play this character. Charlie’s performance stems from a place of honesty that showcases he truly believes in the material and hence on many occasions he is able to show us the side of Lin that he wants others to perceive of him. The white man who turns the caregiver to brown folks he has never first met or the challenges he is ready to stir for them. In many ways, Shantaram’s story is all about Lin’s attempt to constantly shift the focus back to him and with the casting of Hunnam, the creators make sure that it’s only him that the camera stays on. The hour-long episodes also give the creators enough time to establish the absurd circumstances that Lin often finds himself in.
The thing about Shantaram is that when the novel initially came out, it became an instant rage globally but over the years as more attention has been drawn to stories and how they paint their protagonists, the book finds itself suffering from the white saviour complex and ahead of the show’s release, there was much talk about how aware it would be about not coming across as the same. Unfortunately for the show, it does little to step away from that tag. The story that finds Lin on a journey of self-actualization often paints him as the hero to those suffering around him, of course much of it is also his own perception of himself as he constantly tries to escape his past to find his true self whom he believes to be is a man of values and principles. Unfortunately, though, it’s the philosopher side of him that we see more than also the ex-heroin addict convict. The stress on him being the misunderstood person, while everyone around him lures to the dark side feels less authentic. Another major disappointment for the show also happens to be how Bombay is captured. Even as the pandemic forced the makers to shoot a major chunk of the show in Thailand instead of India, it seems like a massive bargain considering how important a role the setting plays to the story and the lack of authenticity of the same is visible in this. Hunnam comes across like a tourist who is put into a forced Indian setting, the natural beat of the city and its people is missing as we see those surrounding him as actors cast to play the inhabitants of Sagarwads rather than just regular folk.
It’s a complicated story to adapt and I wasn’t expecting the project to blow me away considering the massive task it has to take to add the multiple storylines and characters of the book to the show. From the 12-hour series, screeners for the first four episodes were provided for review and in those four hours, while I didn’t feel transported to 1980s Bombay per se, I did believe that Charlie Hunnam comes closest to playing the complicated character of Lin efficiently. The actor conveys his discomfort and attraction towards Karla, his genuine loving bond with Prabhu (Shubham Saraf) ably and the equation building between him and Khader Khan (Siddig) is equally engaging. What did put me off most about the show is how it works with its voiceover. The thing about Shantaram, the novel is that it is laden with quotes that appeal in literary sense but when turned into dialogues, they bring out a phoney side that makes us harder to sympathise or ever truly connect with Lin, further adding to our perception of him acting like the quintessential white saviour. The performances in the series that are worth looking forward to are certainly those belonging to Saraf as the doe-eyed, ever-happy to help his friend ‘Lin baba’ Prabhu. Also, Alexander Siddig as Khader Khan impressively plays the crime lord with a philosophical side. There’s also Elektra Kilbey’s Lisa who brings a sense of unpredictability with her heroin-addict character Lisa. As for Antonia Desplat’s Karla, the indecipherable woman who always keeps Lin and everyone on their toes while slyly playing her own game, Desplat does succeed in bringing out the character’s intriguing side.
Considering how Lin’s story is already packed with enough drama, the visual elements of his character being haunted by nightmares of the grouchy detective from Australia hunting him down in Bombay seem unnecessarily stretched and could have been presented in a better way. There’s also a strange ambiguity to the background of several characters on the show including Madame Zhou and also Khader Khan for that matter and it’s not something you can figure out with the confusing accents. Hence, the show probably also goes to its weakest when it pulls away its focus from Lin as it unevenly establishes the rest of the characters.
- Charlie Hunnam brings out a performance that feels satisfactorily authentic to the character.
- With episodic storytelling spread across an hour for each episode, the creators build up the story at a steady pace.
- The cast performances keep the show interesting all through.
Shantaram is a thriller that does build up its pace with every episode as you get sucked into Lin’s journey in the hustle and bustle of Bombay. While the self-reflective narration does get tiresome at many points, Charlie Hunnam’s performance keeps us invested in what lies ahead for his character. The show is not something that one can enjoy binge-watching, it’s a slow-burner that could pique your interest gradually.
ALSO READ: Shantaram EXCLUSIVE: Charlie Hunnam on his ‘dream month’ in India, falling for its food and culture