Shantaram review: Apple’s bloated new show offers problematic, inauthentic representation of India

Visibly inauthentic, miserably misplaced and saddled with a problematic perspective that makes Indians seem like outsiders in their own land, is the sprawling television adaptation of the novel Shantaram. Apple TV+’s second major misfire of the year after WeCrashed. This is especially disappointing when you consider that the streamer has had an otherwise extraordinary year, with touch after touch after touch which may not have seeped into the cultural consciousness, but remains one of the best shows of the year.

In Shantaram, Charlie Hunnam stars as Lin, an Australian convict who is on the run and flees to India. There he has the adventure of a lifetime after getting mixed up with the underworld, Bollywood and local politics. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale, with the potential to serve as a time capsule of a nation that had just emerged from a traumatic period of turmoil and was on the brink of major economic upheaval.

In a (somewhat annoying) first for the streamer, only part of the full season was slated for preview. This may not have been done because there are spoilers to protect – after all, Shantaram is based on a book – but probably to make sure the engagement doesn’t spiral out of control after the three-episode premiere, and that the series maintains interest if the season continues. Because this is the kind of mediocre, bloated show that needs all the help it can get; it certainly won’t gain fans through word of mouth alone. That said, this should be considered a review of the first three episodes only. There are 12 in total, which leaves room for improvement, but also means it could get worse.

And there isn’t much evidence in the first three chapters to suggest that Shantaram will magically turn into the kind of vibrant, authentic historical drama — a tale of second chances and servitude — that perhaps it should always have been. Based on Gregory David Roberts’ semi-autobiographical epic about life in the 1980s Mumbai – or Bombay, as it was then known – Shantaram tries to maintain the cinematic scope of the novel, but struggles to capture the grimness of existence on the fringes of Indian society. And that may be because barely a minute of it was shot in India – at least as far as the early episodes are concerned.

That presents us with a rather unique dilemma: do we blame Apple for continuing production despite a raging pandemic, a replaced director(?) and a showrunner switcheroo, or do we commend the streamer for overcoming the hurdles and ensuring that the series sees the light of day? This thought experiment becomes more challenging when you consider that the pandemic forced manufacturing to instead use Thailand as a substitute for India.

But while many films have tried to mimic India on foreign soil, Shantaram makes the fatal mistake of casting non-Indian actors in all the major speaking roles, perhaps assuming that the target audience – white people – wouldn’t notice the difference. But let me tell you how shocking it is not only to hear characters who have nothing to do talking in English as if they spent two semesters in Oxford, but also to hear non-Hindi speakers doing their best as if they did. have not just learned the language phonetically.

In many ways, Shantaram retains all the troubles that make Mira Nair’s A suitable boy such an unpleasant experience. In fact, both shows also share a cast member, Shubham Saraf. He played a minor role in that adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel, but in Shantaram – again, at least in the first three episodes – he is the second protagonist. Credit where it is due; his Indian accent is more convincing here than in A Suitable Boy, but it’s still a side job. His performance becomes even more striking when he speaks in Hindi, which, as a swindler in a slum, he should ideally do 90% of the time. There is also the matter of the character itself. Saraf’s Prabhu comes dangerously close to a head-bobbing caricature, and not the confident, loyal friend he should have been.

And then there’s Sudanese-English actor Alexander Siddig, who you might remember as Prince Doran Martell from Game of Thrones and Ra’s al Ghul from Gotham. But as Dongri-based mobster Khader Khan in Shantaram, he’s impossible to take seriously. As a native Hindi speaker, it was almost impossible for me to decipher what he was trying to say in a few scenes. Let alone influencing an authentic Mumbai accent, or, to be hyper-specific, a Bhendi Bazaar accent, Siddig’s Khader Khan is hard to categorize. The character is said to be based on Afghanistan-born Karim Lala, who you may remember in the recent Gangubai Kathiawadic, played by Ajay Devgn. But coupled with the inauthentic locations, scenes with him have the strange power of convincing you that you’re not in India at all anymore.

By the way, Khader Khan would be played by none other than Amitabh Bachchan when Nair – what a coincidence – was to direct a film adaptation of Shantaram starring Johnny Depp. The character will play a much bigger role as Lin’s mentor as the season unfolds.

Which brings us to Hunnam itself. He is one who, like ours, Sidharth Malhotra, has been named a movie star simply because he looks that way, not because he has the necessary charisma. Hunnam’s Lin isn’t exactly a smart con man. Instead, the actor plays him as a runway model who has lost his bags in transit. He flings his way in and out of scenes, and just doesn’t have the necessary cooks to convince at times that Lin has to pretend to be someone else. Lin should have been a slick chameleon, but in Shantaram’s (mostly fake) Mumbai trenches, he stands out like a sore thumb.

By suggesting that just about any brown-faced person can play Indians, the show not only does different cultures a disservice, but also the idea of ​​diversity in general. And then, having approved all these bad ideas, they went ahead and gave Shantaram a disturbing white savior story. Even desi ‘jugaad’ couldn’t fix this.

Shantaram
creators – Steve Lightfoot, Eric Warren Singer
Form – Charlie Hunnam, Shubham Saraf, Alexander Siddig, Antonia Desplat
Rating – 2/5

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