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‘Shantaram’ review: Charlie Hunnam stars in Apple TV+’s vaguely engrossing adaptation of Gregory David Roberts’ novel

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‘Shantaram’ is definitely not the show to go for if you are looking for gritty reality, but spending time with hunky Hunnam and his colourful cast of characters does not seem such an imposition

‘Shantaram’ is definitely not the show to go for if you are looking for gritty reality, but spending time with hunky Hunnam and his colourful cast of characters does not seem such an imposition

Once you get beyond the strange accents, fake locations, lurching plot and white saviour clichés (that is a big ask) Shantaram, based on Gregory David Roberts’ 936 page-tome, is vaguely engrossing. Set in ‘80s Bombay, Shantaram tells the story of heroin addict and bank robber, Dale (Charlie Hunnam) who escapes dreadful torture and beatings in Pentridge Prison, in Victoria, Australia, to Bombay.

Shantaram

Season: 1 

Episodes: 4 (out of 12)

Run time: 52 to 60 minutes

Creators: Eric Warren Singer, Steve Lightfoot

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Fayssal Bazzi, Sujaya Dasgupta, Antonia Desplat, Elham Ehsas, David Field, Matthew Joseph, Rachel Kamath, Alyy Khan, Elektra Kilbey, Shiv Palekar, Luke Pasqualino, Vincent Perez, Shubham Saraf, Gabrielle Scharnitzky, Alexander Siddig

Storyline: An escaped criminal comes to India to lose himself and finds love among other things

What was originally meant to be a transit halt, evolves into a long stay where Dale transforms into Lin-baba (the name on his false passport is Lindsey Ford), Dr Lin and later Shantaram. Like any big bustling metropolis, Bombay too provides Lin with all manner of shady ladies and black knights.

Fresh off the bus, Lin meets the archetypical hustler in the tour guide, Prabhu (Shubham Saraf). All expats congregate at Reyanaldo’s Café (it was the iconic Leopold Café in the book). There is the femme fatale Karla (Antonia Desplat), who Lin promptly falls for, her partner Didier (Vincent Perez), the beautiful American junkie and lady of the night Lisa (Elektra Kilbey), her pimps Modena (Elham Ehsas) and Maurizio (Luke Pasqualino), Vikram (Shiv Palekar), a stuntman with a weakness for spaghetti westerns, and a journalist Kavita (Sujaya Dasgupta), looking like all newshounds for the next big story.

The underworld is represented by rapscallions from the all over the world — Abdel Khader Khan (Alexander Siddig), his arch rival Walid Shah (Mel Odedra), and his lieutenant Abdullah Taheri (Fayssal Bazzi). There is the venomous Madame Zhou (Gabrielle Scharnitzky) who runs the Palace, a cavernous, high-class brothel.  

The good people at the slum include Ravi (Matthew Joseph), a boy whose mother is killed in a fire Lin blames himself for, the respected and respectful headman Qasim Ali (Alyy Khan) and Parvati (Rachel Kamath), who works at a tea stall and is Prabhu’s love interest in one of the sweeter sub-plots of the show.

The accents are odd to say the least from Hunnam’s off-and-on Aussie accent to none of the Mumbaikars being able to even say the name of their slum, Sagar Wada, correctly. Oh for Vijay Dinanath Chouhan’s expectorated “Mandwa”! 

Though Lin’s Bombay does not look or feel like Bombay in any time frame, we can be charitable and accept this rendition of the great metropolis as existing in the creator’s imagination. Shantaram, which came out in 2003, is said to be inspired by Roberts’ life and probably was the Bombay he remembers; nostalgia and all that.

We all know the Raj was not all glittering balls and chota haziri, Victorian England not all foggy cobblestoned streets and hansom cabs, and Casablanca not full of glamorous people holding forth about a hill of beans at Rick’s. There is, however, an allure to history in soft focus. So, here too, the slums are rather sanitised and the sweat glistening on Hunnam’s frequently bared chest looks suspiciously made-up. The fact that Melbourne and Bangkok doubled up for Mumbai, does not help in the reality stakes. Shantaram is definitely not the show to go for if you are looking for gritty reality; that would be Mira Nair’s version in an alternate reality with Amitabh Bachchan and Johnny Depp.

Once you accept the conceit that it is all make-believe, (that is cinema innit?), then spending time with hunky Hunnam and his colourful cast of characters does not seem such an imposition.

Shantaram is presently streaming on Apple TV+



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