Shantaram, Apple TV+ review: this sluggish drama will make you glad you never bought the book

Charlie Hunnam and Shubham Saraf in Shantaram - Roland Neveu
Charlie Hunnam and Shubham Saraf in Shantaram - Roland Neveu

I have never read Shantaram, the best-selling (six million copies and counting) book by Gregory David Roberts. If it’s as bad as the Apple TV+ adaptation, I’ve saved myself many hours of tedium.

Based on its title and cover, I’d always imagined Gregory David Roberts’s book was a hippie manual for the backpacking middle classes, an Eat Pray Love for the sort of people who go to discover the “real India” then come back wearing cotton harem pants and claiming that after three months without shampoo “your hair really starts cleaning itself”.

But it turns out that it’s closer to Howard Marks’ equally ubiquitous Mr Nice as it follows the dubious adventures of a prison escapee who legs it to Mumbai, where he gets drawn into a world of drugs and crime but remains the hero with a heart of gold.

Charlie Hunnam plays the lead character, Lin Ford. If you have ever seen Green Street, the football hooligan film in which Hunnam attempts to play a Cockney, you will know that accents are not his strong point. Here he is required to play an Australian, with similar results.

The programme-makers have identified one of Hunnam’s strengths, though, which is that he looks great without a shirt. So here he is brushing his teeth while not wearing a shirt, and sitting around his room while not wearing a shirt – well, Mumbai is hot – and having frequent flashbacks to that time he got tortured by an Australian policeman while not wearing a shirt.

The drama revolves around Hunnam and his man-bun, with two women thrown in: Karla, an enigmatic brunette (played by Antonia Desplat), and Lisa (Elektra Kilbey) who is “somehow sad and sexy as hell all at the same time”. The dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. “I guess I need to be running towards something, not away from it,” Lin tells Karla. “Maybe you’re my guardian angel,” he suggests when they first meet. “No. There’s too much devil in me for that,” she replies.

Roberts’s novel was over 900 pages long, and has been turned into 12 hour-long episodes. But things move sluggishly – after a snappy opening in which Lin escapes from prison – and the action could have been sharpened up considerably by condensing things into fewer instalments.

Indians are minor characters, although Shubham Saraf does his best as Lin’s faithful sidekick. India is merely the backdrop to these Westerners’ seedy lives, but director Bharat Nalluri and director of photography Stefan Duscio do capture something of India’s essence.