Shantaram review: a flawed, kaleidoscopic whirl of excitement


For years, the smart money was on Shantaram never making it to the screen. Almost two decades after it became a publishing sensation, selling millions of copies worldwide, multiple attempts were made to commit the show to screen. They never succeeded - until now.

That’s right, AppleTV+’s latest project is about to land on our screens, and for such a long-awaited occasion, there’s surprisingly little buzz around it. The original material was written by Gregory David Roberts, a criminal who fled prison for a life in Bombay in the Eighties. The resulting book (which he maintains is fictional) was influenced by his life and attracted a fair amount of opprobium on how accurate the facts within it really were.

The story follows Lin, played by Brit Charlie Hunnam, of Sons of Anarchy fame, with an accent that vacillates between Australia and Birmingham. Lin is your classic bad guy gone good.

Boasting a story with more twists and turns than a mountain highway – Lin was a paramedic, became addicted to drugs and fell into a life of crime, before escaping Australia’s Pentridge Prison – the show in the main focuses on his hunt for purpose and redemption in Bombay.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems and our lost lad soon finds himself embroiled in the city’s underworld, with potentially deadly consequences for him and his friends; the end result is a dizzy, kaleidoscopic whirl of excitement that nevertheless struggles to find its feet.

Mysterious: Antonia Desplat as Karla (AppleTV+)
Mysterious: Antonia Desplat as Karla (AppleTV+)

As in the book, Shantaram does a wonderful job of evoking the atmosphere of a frenetic city continuously in the process of growing and changing. The sets, it goes without saying, are gorgeous: we travel from slums to colonial-era palaces and back again within the space of just one episode, and meet people from all corners of the planet as they converge to chat about their shady dealings in secret bars.

Unfortunately, it does a less wonderful job with the script. Clearly, the show has been sexed up: the main plot comes complete with a bad guy, some Bond-girl lites and stylish suits. It makes for an odd contrast with the bits where Lin is shown exploring Bombay, with the end result that the script struggles to balance the two.

Unfortunately, part of its efforts to speed the action along is via pretentious voiceover: barely five minutes went by before Hunnam intones a cod-philosophical insight on his companions or his experiences in the city.

Clangers such as “I think life is like a crowded lifeboat” and “you haven’t escaped anything until you go onto something” all sound about a hundred times worse said out loud than they do in the pages of the book they were presumably taken from (I haven’t read it).

Lin is also a hard character to get invested in. Aside from the accent, Hunnam plays him as a cipher: he’s a stereotypical hunk with a heart, who cries in prison and spends a lot of his time looking pensively at people and making eyes at the attractive Karla (the wonderfully aloof Antonia Desplat).

But what does he believe in? What does he do in his free time? Does he actually have any charisma, or do the scriptwriters believe that a wry aside or two account for a personality? Shantaram’s script bends over backwards to make Lin a hero seeking redemption rather than do much digging into his psyche, arguably to its detriment.

Best buds: Lin and Prabaker (AppleTV+)
Best buds: Lin and Prabaker (AppleTV+)

Fortunately, by episode two, things clear up a bit; the show finds its feet and relaxes a little. In part, this is due to Lin’s relationship with Prabaker (Shubham Saraf), his Indian guide who ends up becoming a friend (and, fortunately, brings strong goofy sidekick energy to Hunnan’s straight man).

The other is due to the aforementioned Desplat, who basically plays this show’s equivalent of a Bond girl.

Boasting a mysterious past and even more mysterious agenda, Karla is the enigma at the centre of Shantaram, and both Lin and the audience are always two steps behind her – even as she enlists Lin to help her pull off various plans that inevitably end him up in more trouble than he was in before.

So is Shantaram the show set to conquer the airwaves in the way its literary predecessor managed for bookshops? Let’s see. As gorgeous and frenetic as it is, this is a show that needs some fine-tuning. However, it still manages to make its premise feel fresh and interesting: stick with it, and you may just be rewarded.

Shantaram will be streaming on AppleTV+ from October 14