For years, Shantaram was the cursed production that was never going to be.
Gregory David Roberts’ wildly popular novel was flying off the shelves in 2003 and the screen rights were sold soon after. Russell Crowe was attached, then Johnny Depp, and for a while there, it was Joel Edgerton. Peter Weir was going to direct at one point.
After more than a decade of development hell, Shantaram the movie morphed into Shantaram the TV show. In some ways, it makes more sense – streaming had overtaken cinema and the book runs more than 900 pages.
But even as the TV production ramped up, the off-screen dramas weren’t over. At that point, in 2019, Oscar nominated screenwriter Eric Warren Singer had been tapped to write the scripts and Australian director Justin Kurzel was to be the set-up director.
Two episodes were shot in Melbourne and Mumbai before it was shut down – the show wasn’t going in the right direction and, reported The Age’s Karl Quinn, the remaining scripts weren’t ready.
By the time the cameras rolled again in mid-2021, this time in Thailand, Shantaram was basically restarting from scratch. There was a new showrunner, Steve Lightfoot (The Punisher, Hannibal), while Bharat Nalluri would direct the first episodes.
With a backstory like that, it’s a miracle that there even is a Shantaram series at all, let alone 10 episodes of a lush and intriguing albeit slow-burn drama.
If you’re one of the people who didn’t make your way through Roberts’ doorstopper of a book, the late-1970s-set story is about Lin (Charlie Hunnam), an Australian man who escapes a Victorian prison where he is serving a 19-year sentence for bank robbery, during which a cop was killed.
With his share of the loot and a fake New Zealand passport, Lin flees to Mumbai, then Bombay, where he meets the enterprising Prabu (Shubham Saraf), a local guide with whom he forms a deep friendship.
Lin also meets a community of drifters and outsiders in one of the ex-pat bars, a collection of people from elsewhere, including pimps, a sex worker and the well-connected Karla (Antonia Desplat).
As a newcomer to this web of thorny motives and criminal relationships, Lin upsets the dynamic, especially when he falls for Karla. He’s also making waves in Prabu’s slum community, which is the target of competing developers out to push out the marginalised and build on the ashes of their homes.
If there’s one thing Shantaram wants you to take away from its first season – it doesn’t get too far into Roberts’ book – it’s that everyone has an agenda, often criminal, except for maybe the redemption-seeking Lin whose motives are mostly to remain out of prison.
The sticky world within the series is full of corruption and almost everyone can be bought.
The show largely avoids the white saviour complex even though he’s hailed within the slum as the doctor who treats everyone’s ails (he was an ambo in Australia). But he stuffs up too often to really be saving anyone.
Shantaram is Lin’s redemption story and while the show doesn’t delve too deeply into the textures of that journey, it does vividly evoke a particular world.
It’s a languid show where not a lot happens but if you have the patience to stick with it – and if Hunnam’s so-so Australian accent doesn’t distract too much – Shantaram is compelling enough to be an immersive story.
Shantaram is streaming now on Apple TV+
Originally published as Shantaram: Cursed production that finally made it to screen