When Shantaram’s Lin Ford (Charlie Hunnam) makes his way to India after escaping from an Australian prison in broad daylight, the first thing he notices is how it smells. “It was the smell of hope,” Hunnam drawls, setting up Lin’s journey to redemption on the streets of 1980s Mumbai.
This introduction is the first noticeable change from the book upon which the Apple TV show is based. Gregory David Roberts’ novel is believed to be semi-autobiographical, and its first impressions of India are anything but hopeful. “It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of 60 million animals, more than half of them human and rats,” Roberts writes, sizing up his new home by reducing its people to not much more than rodents.
For years,Roberts bestselling book sat in development hell: Johnny Depp purchased the rights not long after its publication in 2003, and a revolving cast of creatives, including Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan, Indian director Mira Nair, and a slew of writers were attached at various times. Now a television version from Eric Warren Singer and Steve Lightfoot has clawed its way to the finish line, revealing that adapting this story requires an incredible amount of nuance—something that the show succeeds in more than the book ever did.
With a fake New Zealand passport in hand, Lin (real name Dale Conti)—who had become one of Australia’s most wanted men for armed robbery—makes his way through customs and into the unfamiliar, bustling Indian city, originally intended as a stopover on his way to Europe. Almost immediately he meets Prabhu (an excellent Shubham Saraf), a jovial tour guide who quickly takes Lin under his wing, though Lin seeks out other non-Indians at a pub feeling a sense of community with the fellow foreigners. Lin’s immediate intrigue with Karla (Antonia Desplat), a mysterious woman who is entangled in Mumbai criminal underworld, pulls him into the city’s underground prostitution ring and drug trade.
When Prabhu hears that Lin is in trouble, he relocates him to his home in the Sagar Wada slums. But Lin is followed and hunted by a henchman at the behest of the brothel owner Madame Zhou (Gabrielle Scharnitzky), who is unhappy that Lin’s arrival is hurting her business as he helps her star employee Lisa (Elektra Kilbey) get clean. In a rush to escape, Lin inadvertently starts a fire in the village that kills a young mother. Wracked with grief, he puts his skills as a former paramedic to use by setting up a small clinic to aid the people he’s hurt. Lin’s small hut suddenly becomes the community’s makeshift hospital, lines teeming with every ailment snaking out of his door. But when the slum has an outbreak of cholera, a corrupt medical system and Lin’s limited access to supplies lead him to seek help from unsavory marginal characters.
Many have registered Lin’s exalted role in the slum and the recognition he receives for his deeds as a white savior narrative, with the residents of Sagar Wada just stepping stones on his path to redemption. But that reading neglects the origins of Lin’s actions and of his wrongdoings. Hunnam’s Lin is afforded depth: His path to prison originated in personal drug use, and his affection for the people he lives among feels genuine. Without an inciting incident like the fire, Lin’s greatest wish was to blend in and not get caught. But when tragedy strikes he’s imbued with some humanity, which manifests in helping the community that he accidentally destroyed by setting up via a free clinic—essentially putting a bandaid on a serious injury. It’s not salvation that he’s seeking, but forgiveness.
There are aspects of his quest that may come off as preachy, like when he takes a gravely ill woman to the free neighborhood hospital, even after she tells him she’s been denied treatment twice, expecting that he’ll face a different outcome. When the slick doctor at the clinic turns them away when they refuse to buy their way to the front of the line for treatment, Lin has a public outburst. The rules, he finds out, are still applicable to him, even when they are laced with malice. But it’s hard not to put yourself in Lin’s shoes, seeing a free hospital and expecting that someone who needs treatment will be able to get it. Lin is not acting from an innate feeling of superiority, but rather an ignorance about the many Indian systems that have placed money ahead of morals.
Lin’s friendship with Prabhu is the backbone of Shantaram. The tour guide acts as Lin’s right hand man and eyes on the ground while the gora in town provides genuine friendship to Prabhu and helps him find confidence to ask out a girl he’s had his eye on for years. Again, this could be seen through a western worldview where brown men are desexualized and not considered desirable, and where Prabhu could never get the girl without a white man’s help.
But it’s just as possible to view Prabhu’s reluctance through the lens of Indian conservative values, which ask for more chaste courting and familial input. Ultimately, Lin’s actions speak more to friendship than a messiah complex, especially because his teasing and brotherly love motivate Prabhu to be slightly more open about his feelings. On the show, Lin also isn’t presented as a desirable object to the women of the dwelling, removing any capacity for him to be seen as a romantic foil to Prabhu.
Shantaram translates to “Man of God’s Peace,” a title that, in the book, Lin receives from Prabhu’s mom as a judgment of his integrity and character. Here, a white man is given a name invoking God, raising him up in comparison to his Indian brethren. Roberts’ novel—which he maintains is a work of fiction—plays up the white savior trope throughout, crediting Lin with an oversized and life-changing role in the lives of these poor brown people. But the TV series pulls back to show Lin’s humanity and his humility. The show doesn’t give us this moment with Prabhu’s mom in season one, nor does it hint at his status as an elevated figure within the Sagar Wada community or Mumbai at large. In fact, the de facto leader of the slum, Qasim Bhai (Alyy Khan), makes sure that Lin knows he’s a visitor—a welcome one, but not someone who will rise in the ranks despite his clinic and connections.
After the cholera outbreak, Lin makes a deal with the devil to ensure the slum has access to clean water. It’s a move that Qasim outright decries, irritated with Lin for entangling Sagar Wada with the inappropriate dealings of the local gang. Lin obviously sees himself as doing the right thing, but the show treats his actions as a blunder, keeping our perspective, and the moral high ground, with Qasim.
None of this is to say that Shantaram is a perfect show. In fact, the show largely falters in its depiction of Mumbai, seemingly focused on the least interesting parts of the diverse city. It’s a slog to get through as the 12 episode season stretches plots and introduces boring characters into the fold, and relies on painful voiceover narration. And it does not echo the highs of another man-in-an-Asian-city series Tokyo Vice, which seemed to rightly realize that its white protagonist was not as fascinating as everything happening around him.
As an act of adaptation, Shantaram elevates the book’s worldview and injects compassion into its main character. The first season toggles between a man grappling with the consequences of his past and the promise of who he can be, aided by his newfound friends and community. His journey to find salvation is on the table but out of reach, and Lin cannot be a white savior if he has not yet saved himself.