Monday 23 January 2023

Streaming on Apple TV- Rod Bishop reports on the troubled history of SHANTARAM (Eric Warren Singer, Steve Lightfoot, showrunners, USA, 2022)

Apple TV have canned Shantaram after one series. A huge hunk of Gregory David Roberts’ best-selling 900-page novel may never make it to a screen. 

A big title “To Be Continued” at the end of season one turns out to be just wishful thinking.

Adapting Shantaram has been a fraught experience for almost 20 years. The 27 producer credits are probably an indication of the difficulties encountered.

After the novel’s publication in 2003, Warners purchased the rights for a couple of million. By 2005, Eric Roth had been hired to rewrite Gregory David Robert’s first draft; Peter Weir was to direct and Johnny Depp was cast as the central character, an Australian, now thanks to a fake name and passport, called Lindsay (Lin) Ford. ‘Different interpretations’ occurred and Weir walked.

He was replaced by Mira Nair but Warners cancelled the shoot in 2007.

In 2013, Depp approached Joel Edgerton to play Lin and also join as a producer. Warners sounded out Garth Davies (Lion) as director. But production stalled again and the rights lapsed.

Gregory David Roberts (Charlie Hunnam)

In 2018, Apple announced a 10-part television series with Eric Warren Singer as the scriptwriter and showrunner. The budget was variously reported as $55 million and $100 million. Filming started in Victoria in 2019 with a planned relocation to India. Production was suspended once again in February due to the monsoon season and India’s worsening Covid numbers.

Filming restarted in May 2021, relocating to Thailand, again to avoid Covid outbreaks in India and photography was completed in December 2021. The series started streaming in October 2022 – in twelve episodes (not ten) - and was greeted with luke-warm reviews.

These 12 episodes cover Lin Ford’s escape from Pentridge Prison after two years of a 19-year sentence for armed robbery; his flight to Bombay under a fake name and a fake New Zealand passport; his friendship with tour guide Prabhu; his involvement with the Bombay underworld and its weird collection of multinational characters; and his time as a pretend doctor working in Bombay’s largest slum.

The rest of the book is missing: his small-time Bollywood career; villagers giving him the Marathi name Shantaram (“Man of God’s Peace”); his career in the drug and weapons trade; his prison time in a Mumbai jail; his continuing involvement with the Afghan mafia’s black-market currency and passport forgery; and his smuggling of weapons into Afghanistan for the mujahideen’s war against the Russians.

The luke-warm reviews are mostly critical of the narrative drive, inauthentic characters, the length, the ‘meandering story’ and the ‘false’ picture of life in Bombay. All a matter of opinion and personal taste really, but there are also plenty of viewers on blog sites who violently disagree. Some even consider it the best series of 2022. 

It looks expensive and almost certainly was, and presumably viewer numbers were disappointing, but unless another streamer picks it up, series one is all we’ll get.

The excellent casting has gone to waste. Despite his very dodgy Australian accent and one too many naked torso shots, Charlie Hunnam does a decent enough job as Lin Ford and he’s certainly more empathetic than Roberts managed with his own character in the book.

Shubham Saraf as Prabhu

Elektra Kilbey as Lisa

Antonia Desplat as Karla is mesmerizingly mysterious; Alexander Siddig provides quiet charisma as Afghan crime boss Khader Khan; Vincent Perez is suitably hapless as Didier, the German coffee house trader in underworld connections; Elektra Kilbey (Steve Kilby’s daughter) is more than convincing as the American prostitute Lisa and better than portrayed in the novel; and best of all, Shubham Saraf as Lin’s great Indian friend Prabhu has some reviewers suggesting he should have his own series.

A few Indian critics quite rightly point out their country men and women are somewhat peripheral to the story, but that was always the case in the book. 

Gregory David Roberts, addict, bank robber, escapee and on Australia’s most wanted list, learnt fluent Marathi, lived in the slum, but in Bombay immediately gravitated towards the international ex-pats. And what a shady bunch of underworld gangsters, pimps and fellow-travelers they were. 

Charlie Hunnam as Lin, Antonia Desplat as Karla

Although Roberts talks a lot about his own quest for redemption, he never seemed aware that having escaped the criminal world in Melbourne, he just walked straight into a criminal world in Bombay and quickly settled for its treacherous milieu. 

Either that, or he didn’t care.   

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