Fun fact: If you watch the Hindi dub of the Apple TV series Shantaram, the series is infinitely more entertaining. In Hindi, this adaptation of Gregory Roberts’s bestselling novel about the adventures of a White saviour, has all the feels of a Bollywood film. It’s barely tethered to any recognisable reality, despite being set in Eighties’ Bombay. Everyone’s pretty and thin, the coincidences are outlandish, and there are familiar tropes like the underworld don who stands by his code of honour and the madame of a brothel who is too proud for her own good. The dialogues — which want to be lyrical but only end up sounding cringe-worthy in English — have much of their awkwardness translated out of them, so they sound less forced in Hindi. For instance, when the protagonist narrator Lin (Charlie Hunnam) describes a sex worker as “somehow sad and sexy as hell, all at the same time”, it’s hard to not to roll your eyes. In Hindi, this becomes “ek hi waqt mein, woh udaas aur sexy, dono hi dikhti thi” and the way “sexy” is uttered lets you know that the speaker (for all his baritone) is a bit of a juvenile.
Unfortunately, Shantaram doesn’t add up as a Hindi-language story. After all, its narrator is a White Australian man who comes to India because he sees it as an alien, faraway country where he can lay low since he’s on the run. It makes no sense for Lin to be speaking Hindi to his Australian mate and much of his initial interactions in Bombay are based on Lin needing a guide and translator. Then again, so little does make sense in Shantaram that you might as well watch it in Hindi and pretend Apple TV has dipped its toes into Bollywood.
In the first three episodes, which are now available to stream on Apple TV, we meet our hero Dale (Hunnam) in Pentridge Prison in Victoria, Australia. He was studying to be a paramedic, but ended up getting embroiled in a bank heist and is suspected of having killed a police officer. After he escapes from prison — it’s the Eighties so there are no security cameras and the prison guards evidently need their eyes checked — Dale procures a fake passport, becomes Lin Ford from New Zealand, and flees to Bombay. In Bombay, he meets a golden-hearted Indian tourist guide named Prabhu (Shubham Saraf) and a group of dubious White people (with accents that are even more confused than Lin’s). While rolling with this crew, Lin impersonates an American diplomat to save a sex worker (the one who is “somehow sad and sexy as hell”) from The Palace, which looks like a mid-range heritage hotel in Rajasthan, but is actually a brothel in Bombay run by a cold-hearted villain named Madame Zhou. Later, Lin gets mugged and beaten up, as you must in Eighties’ India. Since his passport was a forgery, Lin can’t go to the authorities. Instead, he takes shelter in Prabhu’s home, in a slum called Sagarwadi. On his first night in Sagarwadi, there’s a fire and even though he makes one terrible call with an injured woman, the people of the slum are grateful for Lin’s paramedic training. Meanwhile, a politician’s been murdered (the police don’t seem bothered by this minor detail); there’s an angry drug lord who’s made an enemy of an angrier Madame Zhou; and there’s a ghazal singer who performs accompanied by a violinist even though the instrument we hear is the sarangi.
More troubling than the factual inaccuracies, lack of logic and how Bombay looks like a neatly-constructed set is Shantaram’s inability to make Lin’s story seem interesting. We’ve been introduced to a crowd of characters who should be interesting but too few of them make any impression. Not for a moment does anything or anyone in Shantaram feel real. Everything feels staged. Also, the first three episodes cover everything from mugging to murder, without infusing any suspense or tension into the narrative. For all the pimps and underworld dons that float through Shantaram’s Bombay, the city feels benign. While the dangers are few, the saviours are many.
In all fairness, there are some creative calls in Shantaram that are worth applauding. For instance, there’s the decision to have Hunnam appear shirtless at regular intervals so that we can appreciate both his inner and outer core strength. His meandering accent aside, Hunnam holds his own as the tortured Lin, who is desperate to escape his past. The cast has some excellent actors, like Saraf as Prabhu and Elektra Kilbey is a scene-stealer as a junkie and sex worker. Kilbey’s role is as limited as her character’s wardrobe yet her performance almost makes you forget everything that’s wrong with the writing. Similarly, Saraf is able to redeem Prabhu from becoming a bobble-headed caricature and it’s tempting to imagine how Shantaram might have unfolded if we could see at least some of the events of these first three episodes from Prabhu’s perspective.
Shantaram was never going to be an easy book to adapt, especially now. The 2003 novel is rich in drama and low on credibility. The point of the novel is to glorify Lin Ford who sees India through the gaze of a White saviour. Twenty years ago, exoticising India and its people through the Western gaze was still acceptable (though it’s worth keeping in mind that the novel was criticised by Indian readers for precisely this reason). Fortunately, one of the welcome shifts made possible by streaming platforms is placing people of colour as subjects who are central to a narrative, rather than objects to be othered. A show like Sacred Games is as much of a fiction and fantasy as Shantaram, but it feels rooted and credible because the perspective is local. Shantaram’s creators Eric Warren Singer and Steve Lightfoot — Lightfoot replaced Singer midway into the project — try to find a balance by having Lin repeatedly identify himself as an outsider and by showing he’s actually making things worse for people around him. However, the show also has throwaway lines like, “Poverty looks good on you” and you’ve got to wonder how that sounded right to anybody’s ears.