Apple TV+'s Shantaram is probably going to be your favourite new programme of the fall if you appreciate seeing excellent actors in exotic locations, covered in cosmetic sweat, discussing second chances in borderline-comical accents.
With the insufferable trappings of yet another white saviour story about a damaged guy whose quest for self-actualization leads him to an exotic place where superficial lessons about a previously unknown spiritual system help him and basically nobody else around him, Gregory David Roberts' epic tome Shantaram has been breathlessly anticipated for nearly two decades by countless people who bought it to read on an aeroplane but never quite finished it, Shantaram has been breathlessly anticipated. Yes, it has some of those elements, but more than that. It falls within this category.
Shantaram, however, is a parody of every great narrative of character-driven metamorphosis ever written, from Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo to James Clavell, with just around five percent of it being dramatised memoir like Roberts' book. Since Shantaram has so many characters and plot lines, almost everyone will find two or three that they enjoy, even though the first season of this drama inevitably never entirely overcomes the difficulties of a challenging adaptation has at least as many that feel hurried or overextended.
Charlie Hunnam, an Australian philosophy student and paramedic who eventually ends up in jail after taking a detour into drugs and armed robbery, plays Dale Conti, our protagonist, in the film. Dale escapes from prison, obtains a new passport, adopts the identity "Lindsay Ford," and travels to India in response to claims that he is a snitch. However, Dale is not one because he is genuinely honourable despite being a criminal. In 1982 Bombay, which is now known as Mumbai, Lin befriends hustling tour guide Prabhu (Shubham Saraf) and learns about a strange neighbourhood pub filled with varied expats, some seeking fortune, some seeking enlightenment, and all simply attempting to blend in.
His shrewd fixer Didier (Vincent Perez), feisty prostitute and drug addict Lisa (Elektra Kilbey), and the mysterious Karla (Antonia Desplat) are his new allies—not quite friends—and they all play a part in Lin falling in love with them right away.
Lin's misfortune quickly leads him to a slum in Bombay, where he comes to the attention of the slick-talking thug Khader Khan (Alexander Siddig), who sees the repentant stranger as either a son, a pawn, or an opportunity to make people like me relate the story of Shantaram to Shogun.
Oh, and speaking of the Australian setting, there is a grumpy detective (David Field's Nightingale) who is determined to bring Lin to justice at all costs, regardless of the parallels to Les Miserables.
I hardly even scratched the surface of all the personalities and plots that writers Eric Warren Singer and Steve Lightfoot — Nobody will ever be able to separate who did what when or who replaced Singer as the showrunner; there will be wrangling. To sum it up, they don't so much wrestle as they hurl a lot of visual elements at the viewer, some of which are appealing to the eye and generally interesting. The first season of Shantaram is Dickensian in its colourful extravagance and Dickensian in the sense that someone somewhere must have been convinced they were being paid on a per-installment basis. It has 12 hour-long episodes that only move halfway through the book. Lin often finds himself stripping off, either to show viewers that our hero is scarred on the outside as well as the inside or to show them that Lin (or Charlie Hunnam) is as committed to his outer core as his inner core. The only thing more repetitive than Lin's cycle of mini-redemptions and mini-downfalls is the frequency with which he does so.
Leaving cynicism about his beefcake treatment aside, Hunnam is actually good in a tale of a dignity-torn fish out of water that feels like a continuation of his work on the big screen in Triple Frontier, The Lost City of Z, and Papillon. Hunnam's patented soulful hunkiness is put to the test by generally bad narration, laden with redundant thematic noodling and the occasional precious reminder that whether Lin is on a path to betterment, he's making everything consistently worse for the people around him. Why won't anyone ever give him a vehicle that utilises his Undeclared comic timing? Similar to how Tokyo Vice was saved by everyone just admitting that Ansel Elgort's character was the least interesting guy in an interesting city, those small gestures of understanding prevent Shantaram from ever devolving into a full-on imperialist nightmare.
Although Hunnam's Australian accent tends to wane more often than it waxes, it's a fitting addition to a series and a setting where nearly everyone is interchangeable, both in terms of ethnicity and philosophical stance. Desplat, Kilbey, and Siddig are exempt from visits by the accent police because it's unclear where Karla, Lisa, or even Khader Khan is actually from (see also Gabrielle Scharnitzky's terrifying brothel owner Madame Zhou). By portraying Eve and the serpent as figures seducing Lin in this odd Eden that he has been hurled into rather than cast out of, Desplat and Siddig skillfully keep their characters enigmatic. I immediately stopped caring that the character's writing is terrible because Kilbey, who resembles a branch off of a January Jones/Margot Robbie family tree, has an electrifying screen presence and gives so much unanticipated energy to her moments.
There is literally a mini-arc in which Prabhu introduces Lin to Indian food and Lin gets the runs. However, around the halfway point of the season, a romance blossoms between Prabhu and Rachel Kamath's Parvati. It also takes some time for the writers to find any humanity beyond caricature in Saraf's fast-talking Prabhu. In a drama that all too frequently depicts its characters more like moving pieces on a karmic chessboard than as real people, their bond adds a real note of sweetness. This becomes an issue in the final few episodes of the season, when Lin transitions from being the story's obvious protagonist to having to share almost equal time with weak storylines involving Lisa's Italian pimps and an intensifying gangland war in which too many of the characters are hardly multi-dimensional.
To prevent Shantaram from completely slipping into a trite and voyeuristic genre, the season's climax is chaotic enough to destroy a lot of the effort the creative team put into giving subtlety to this universe. The first three episodes of the season were directed by Bharat Nalluri, who tries to give some context to locations that were often shot on location in India, if not really in Mumbai. Although there is some of that, the script makes an effort to use a variety of languages and dialects to give the native characters authentic voices and vernacular. This helps to make the shantytown of Sagar Wada seem more like a community of people than a vast area where nameless people fish from the same foul puddles.
Over time, an enormous number of potential Shantaram adaptations have been created. I don't regret that Johnny Depp didn't get to star in Shantaram, but I do regret that Mira Nair didn't get the chance to direct. I can understand why fitting 900+ pages into two hours was challenging. The result is a passable, if not very epic, sprawl that is attractively made, decently acted, and generally fragmented.