Gregory David Roberts is one of the most interesting men you’ve never heard of. He wasn’t familiar to me, anyway, but spend a moment on his Wikipedia page and your curiosity will be piqued. This is a man who was known in his younger days as “the gentleman bandit” for his polite demeanor when he robbed banks to support his heroin habit. When he finally got caught, he escaped from Australia’s Pentridge Prison and managed to flee to India, where he spent 10 years before he was captured trying to smuggle himself into Germany. Back in his home country, and back in prison, he began to write the novel Shantaram, which was apparently destroyed by guards twice before he was released six years later. Importantly, Shantaram is a novel, not an autobiography, despite the fact that the main character is a man very much like himself who escapes an Australian prison and flees to India. “It doesn’t matter how much of it is true or not to me,” Roberts has said, “it’s how true they are to all of us, and to our common humanity.”
If all of this sounds jumbled yet intriguing, congratulations, because you are in the right frame of mind to consume the Apple TV+ adaptation, also called Shantaram. Starring Charlie Hunnam as Lin, the fake name chosen by Roberts after his escape (and which, we’re told often, means “penis” in Hindi), it’s a little bit disorganized, a little bit confusing, and mostly fun. After 92 episodes as Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy and a good deal of film work, Hunnam is back, and—instead of an American—the English actor is playing an Australian who masquerades as a New Zealander and who, when the moment calls for it, can do a passable American accent. (Considering the fact that most of the action takes place in India, the writers have basically all of the major English colonies covered.) He’s a little kinder and gentler here than in Sons, and has more of a sense of humor, but the quiet desperation and inventiveness that defined the biker prince is very much present: that strange and occasionally thrilling combination of both loathing and craving the state of being in a jam. The pull-and-tug is everything; this is someone who is constantly getting mugged or setting fires just at the moment of departure. 1980s Bombay (they call it “Bombay” instead of “Mumbai,” so I will too) wants him gone, but he’s Corleone-like in the sense that at the very moment when freedom looms, the city manages to pull him back in.
As usual, Hunnam is a strong choice of a lead, and the supporting cast is similarly strong; Shubham Saraf, as the “no. 1 guide in Bombay” and Lin’s friend, is particularly good early in the series, as is Antonio Desplat as the shrewd businesswoman Karla who befriends Lin, uses him, and then finds herself in way over her head. In terms of the story, though, there’s a lot of chaos here. It starts out with a prison escape scene, which is compelling on its own, but then quickly takes us to Bombay, where Lin manages to ricochet between the slums, the criminal underworld, the police, the thriving nightlife, and everywhere in between. This is definitely one of those stories where some guy gets off a plane and immediately becomes the main character of the foreign place he’s never been before, where nobody knows him, and while that begs belief here and there, the viewer is mostly able to get lost in the frenetic pace and put those concerns behind.
Still, it’s a real criticism with real effects on the show. Like the slums Lin stays in at his most desperate, or like the depiction of Bombay itself, it’s hard to discern an organizing principle. And even when you’re swept along in the narrative, that underlying question mark remains, and somewhat diminishes the strong acting and the wonderful cinematography (Bombay, in all its messy grandeur, is a star here). To put it in personal terms, this is one of those shows in which I watch a few screener episodes, convince myself that I’ll definitely-probably-maybe keep watching even after the review is written, and then inevitably forget what drew me and let it fade from memory. That’s the consequence of a scattershot story, even when most of the other elements are done well.
In short, the show will grip you, but the grip is fleeting. It’s one thing to have a rudderless main character, and in that capacity Lin is interesting, charming, and everything else you want from an escaped convict loose in a foreign land. It’s quite another to have a rudderless story. It can be tempting to say to yourself, “forget it, self, it’s Bombay” and get lost in the mystery, but the minute you’re ready to succumb, it might occur to you that even dramas like Chinatown—which depend on the opacity of a certain time and place—have at their core a coherent and even linear narrative. When you ride the wave of drama, the unpredictability of the ebb and flow is part of the appeal, but beneath that surface-level caprice there must be a sense too that the general thrust of the current is toward some shore. Without that, the splendor matters less than the creeping suspicion that you’re lost at sea.
Shantaram premieres Friday, October 14th on Apple TV+.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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