When it comes to streaming content, there’s a steady supply of shows that are meant to be consumed, played in the background, or at 1.5x speed, watched but never remembered. Apple TV+’s Shantaram is something you would remember. Created by Eric Warren Singer and Steve Lightfoot and based on the novel of the same name by Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram stars Charlie Hunnam as Dale Conti (aka Lindsay Ford aka Lin aka Linbaba), an escaped Australian inmate who runs to Bombay in the 1980s in the hopes of losing himself. Once there, he finds himself drawn into a world he doesn’t fully understand, pulled along by people who are saints and sinners by equal measure. In the process, we see a picture begin to form, of a city of dreams and opportunities, but also corruption and temptations.
With 12 episodes running about an hour long each, this show is certainly not something you might want to binge-watch. Take Shantaram slowly, episode by episode and scene by scene, so you can fully experience the brilliant message of the story. Of course, the messengers are brilliant as well. Hunnam has never been better, going even beyond his iconic Sons of Anarchy past to explore a character of infinite goodness and terrible circumstances who is finally starting to understand who he truly is. (Side note: Charlie Hunnam in a lungi (a kind of loincloth) is not something I knew I needed but damn!) Alexander Siddig plays Khader Khan, a philosophizing crime lord who is Hunnam’s true opposite on screen. Their chemistry and complicated student-guru relationship are magnetic, leaving you hanging on every word they exchange whenever the two are in a scene together. Shubham Saraf is delightful as Prabhu, Lin’s first friend in Bombay and the heart of the show. Prabhu is to Lin (or Linbaba as he calls him) what Virgil is to Dante, showing Lin the right path even as he stubbornly insists on following the wrong one. He’s a charming and kind man, even if he has to hustle a little to make a living.
If Prabhu is the angel on Lin’s shoulder, Antonia Desplat as Karla Saaranen plays the devil. She is a truly complicated woman who reveals new layers and angles with every interaction. Elektra Kilbey also delivers a memorable performance as Lisa Carter. Honestly, pretty much all the cast members do a great job, As does Bharat Nalluri, whose directing work on the show is electric, composing scenes of intense tension and extreme tenderness perfectly. The music, the cinematography, are all good — but the real star of the show is Bombay.
One of the first things that struck me about the show was its depiction of the city in the 1980s and what I know of the city today. Everything is different, yet nothing has changed. And I’m not talking about the corruption or the poverty (though those are still there) but about the frenetic life, the hustle, and the dhandha (a term for “business”, usually of the shady variety). There are fewer ex-pats trying to find themselves in Incredible India but while the players may have changed, the game is the same. If you are to truly understand what the show presents, you need to know how the city is perceived, was always perceived, and probably always will be. To most people in India, Mumbai is both New York and Los Angeles, a city of lights and big business where anyone can become anything but most people become nothing. It’s a place where nobody belongs, but, by virtue of that very fact, everybody belongs.
The show brings all of this to life, but thankfully without veering too far into romanticizing or fetishizing the subject as so many others have done (yes, I’m looking at you, Slumdog Millionaire). The show does change some things from the book, but it’s always faithful in this aspect. It’s surprising that a lot of the series was actually filmed in Thailand instead of India, due to the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting production. In Shantaram, Bombay becomes a character all its own, a land inhabited by exiles, all running either away from something or towards something. It’s important to remember that Gregory David Roberts, who wrote the novel the show is based on, used his own experiences to inform his story. The people and the events may not all be real, but the city that he lived in and wrote about certainly was. If the series had failed to capture that chaotic and vibrant portrait, then there would have been no point in its existence. Thankfully, it does.