The true story of a former bank robber who escaped an Australian prison in 1980 to flee to Mumbai – the first few episodes of Shantaram have been released on Apple TV. Based on the best-selling novel by Gregory David Roberts – the series has received mixed reviews for its depiction of the Indian culture. Here’s all about it.
Adventure drama Shantaram has sparked a flurry of conversation on social media of late. In part, this is due to the cult-like following of the eponymous novel, which it is based on. Not to mention, the compelling performance of the Sons of Anarchy actor Charlie Hunnam. However, while the response has largely been positive, the series is being criticised by a few for perpetuating Indian stereotypes and nearly exoticising its culture. We’re doing a deep dive into the storyline and where its portrayal stands today.
Shantaram true story: Did you know the series is based on a novel by Gregory David Roberts?
The novel, although seen as autobiographical, is only loosely based on the life of Gregory David Roberts, a former convicted armed robber who broke out of prison in Australia. The 936-page story begins with the words, “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
On the run from the authorities with a fake passport to boot – the protagonist Lindsay Ford winds up in erstwhile Bombay, where he plans on being inconspicuous. There he finds a guide and friend in Prabaker, who introduces him to the underprivileged side of the city. Soon enough Lin gets caught up in the world of gangsters, prostitutes, holy men, actors, and people in exile. To cement his purpose in life – after being robbed of all he had – he begins running a clinic in the city’s poorest slums while navigating the hold of the mafia.
When it first released in 2005, the novel received a lot of acclaim for its evocative portrayal of Bombay and its many hues. It explored themes of love, freedom, joy, and regret through the course of five parts – each with a different lesson. It also comments on the Indian prison system, seedy black-market practices, and the ways of freedom fighters. The underlying theme? In order to atone for the past, you must first forgive yourself. Let go, to move forward. This abundance of wisdom propelled the novel to a cult-like status within reader circles. Nearly every second person would have a copy tucked under their arms or displayed in their bookshelves.
Engaging characters make the story – most of whom the author insists are fictional. “Some experiences from my life are described pretty much as they happened, and others are created narratives, informed by my experience,” he said in an official interview for his follow-up novel to Shantaram, The Mountain Shadow, before adding, “All of the characters and dialogue is created. It doesn’t matter how much of it is true or not to me, it’s how true they are to all of us, and to our common humanity.” A few people from his past – including the cab driver and his guide Prabhakar Khare – have challenged their portrayal in the novel. The author maintains, “I’m pleased that people think it’s real, when all of the characters are invented, including the one with my name. It means that they connected with the book, which is fiction, in a realistic way.”
The series boasts an extensive and skilled cast and crew
For the first time in 8 years, Charlie Hunnam returns to television as Lin Ford, a man searching for redemption in the underbelly of 1980s Bombay.
Watch #Shantaram and follow the journey October 14 on Apple TV+https://t.co/eF6nAJgSwF pic.twitter.com/2e8gv4gFqU
— Apple TV+ (@AppleTVPlus) October 7, 2022
Prior to shooting, Hunnam reportedly spent four days with Roberts in Jamaica, where the latter lives. Besides playing the lead, the star is also one of the producers of the show. Steve Lightfoot and Eric Warren Singer are credited for its creation while directors Bharan Nalluri, Iain MacDonald and Bronwen Hughes are at the helm of affairs.
Hunnam portrays Dale Conti (Lindsay Ford in the book) looking for his way in the city of dreams, opportunities, and corruption. Alexander Siddig brings dark and intriguing Khader Khan to life in the most compelling manner – sharing a twisted student-teacher relationship with Conti. Antonia Desplat meanwhile plays the magnetic Karla Saaranen – a complex, layered woman who gives Conti a taste of bittersweet love. Elektra Kilbey, meanwhile does justice to Lisa Carter – an American sex worker with a heroin habit.
Dive into the making of #Shantaram with the cast and crew. Stream episodes 1-3 October 14th only on Apple TV+https://t.co/Jsy5PGz9cD pic.twitter.com/91UNB6R1bU
— Apple TV+ (@AppleTVPlus) October 13, 2022
Shubham Saraf is convincing as the loyal and kind Prabhu – Lin’s first friend and guide in the city. In an interview with The Scroll, he noted, “I had read the book when I was 15, on a plane to Mumbai actually and I remember thinking I have never read someone who actually understands what it means to be in Bombay and India,” before adding, “I devoured the book and Prabhu was one of my favourite characters.”
Shantaram’s depiction of India leaves much to be desired for many
Charlie Hunnam tells Georgie Tunny about the love he has for India, even though he had some pretty bad luck while filming his latest movie ‘Shantaram’.#TheProjectTV pic.twitter.com/FPL3rLQN9D
— The Project (@theprojecttv) October 12, 2022
Bombay is hailed as the star of the show however the portrayal of India at large is up for debate. Early reviews note that it struggles to fully capture the gritty spirit of the city of dreams – especially in the manner that the novel had described it. In part, this could be due to the fact that the show was largely shot in Thailand due to COVID restrictions. In the interview with The Scroll, Hunnam indicated that this might soon change, “India is one of the biggest characters in the show. Everyone tried crazy hard to do India justice from afar, but it would be very exciting if we get to come and shoot season two.”
Despite this, many have gone so far as to say that the depiction of a white man’s saviour complex – evident in Conti’s philanthropic approach to things – perpetuates the classic orient versus occident trope that believes the latter to be more ‘civilised’ and ‘progressive’ and the former as in need of help. Additionally, Indian Express notes that casting non-Indian stars as locals in major roles takes away the authenticity of the characters – especially considering their pronunciations and accents are not convincing.
Interestingly, the adaptation was slated to star Amitabh Bachchan as Khader Khan and Johnny Depp in the lead role. Despite the general critique, a few state that the dizzying hustle and business of Bombay is evident in every scene. And that the show stays faithful to the book by not fetishising Indian culture. The verdict, however, is up in the air until the 12-episode series’ final chapter releases over the course of the next few weeks.
Watch the show here.
All images: Courtesy Shantaram/Apple TV