Shantaram S01 – An Interesting but Chaotic 80’s India Period Drama Starring Charlie Hunnam

SERIES REVIEW – Shantaram is a complex, intriguing Apple TV+ drama that gives Charlie Hunnam plenty of opportunities to make the most of his truly rich acting repertoire. Set in the 1980s, it tells the story of an Australian prisoner who escapes to India, based on a relatively well-known novel by a writer who went through similar experiences.



Gregory David Roberts is one of the most interesting people you’ve never heard of. I for one was not familiar with him, but spend a minute on his Wikipedia page and your curiosity will be piqued. This is a man who in his younger days was known as a “gentleman thug” for his polite behaviour when he robbed banks to support his heroin addiction. When he was finally caught, he escaped from Pentridge Prison in Australia and managed to flee to India, where he spent 10 years before being caught again trying to cross into Germany. Returning to his homeland and again in prison, he began writing a novel, Shantaram, which the guards reportedly destroyed twice before he was released six years later. This series is a film adaptation of the surviving third version of his novel.



A bit convoluted, a bit confusing, but still entertaining


Importantly, Shantaram is a novel, not an autobiography, despite the fact that the main character is a man very much like himself who escapes from an Australian prison and flees to India. “It’s not how much of it is true or not true of me,” Roberts said, “but how much of it is true of all of us and our common humanity.”

If all of this sounds convoluted yet interesting, you’re in the right frame of mind to devour the Apple TV+ adaptation, also titled Shantaram. Starring Charlie Hunnam as Lin, the pseudonym Roberts chose after his escape (which, as we often hear, means “penis” in Hindi), the story is a little convoluted, a little confusing, but mostly entertaining.

Hunnam is best known as Jax Teller from the Sons of Anarchy series, where he did 92 episodes (!), but he is also a popular actor for Guy Ritchie and other directors. Hunnam is originally English but used to playing American characters, but now he’s an Australian masquerading as a New Zealander who, when the moment is right, can do an acceptable imitation of an American accent. (Given that much of the plot is set in India, the writers cover virtually all the major English colonies.) Here he is a little kinder and gentler than in his other roles, and has more of a sense of humour, but the quiet desperation and resourcefulness that defined his role as the gentle biker is very much present.



Natural Born Loser


Hunnam is a daredevil in other films, but here he is in many ways a born loser: constantly getting mugged or, when he could finally get away, setting himself on fire just as he’s about to leave. In 1980s Bombay (they call it Bombay instead of Mumbai, so do I), many people want him gone, others are almost compulsive, but he is Corleone-like in the sense that the moment he finally gets to go, the city manages to pull him back.

Hunnam is, as usual, a strong choice for the lead, and the supporting cast is equally strong; Shubham Saraf, as ‘Bombay’s number one tour guide’ and Lin’s friend, is a particularly amusing and entertaining character at the start of the series, as is Antonio Desplat as the wily businesswoman Karla, who befriends Lin, takes advantage of him, and then finds herself in over her head.

In terms of story, however, there is a lot of chaos here. It starts with a prison break scene, which is fascinating in itself, but then quickly takes us to Bombay, where Lin is all over the slums, the criminal underworld, the police, the thriving nightlife and everything in between. It’s typically one of those stories where a guy gets off a plane and immediately becomes the protagonist in a strange place he’s never been before, where no one knows him, and while it’s believable here and there, most of the time it’s not so much and the viewer is mostly able to get lost in the frenetic pace and leave those worries behind.



Too many question marks and side-tracks, little and weak central story thread


Still, this is a real critique with a real impact on the series. As in the slums where Lin is at his most desperate, or as in the portrayal of Bombay itself, it is difficult to discern a central organising principle. And even when we are captivated by the narrative, this underlying question mark remains, and somewhat detracts from the strong acting and wonderful cinematography (Bombay, in all its untidy glory, is the real star here). For me, it’s one of those series where I watch the first season, convince myself that I’ll definitely, or rather just… probably, watch the next one, then inevitably forget what attracted me to it and let it fade from my memory. That’s the consequence of a disjointed story, even if a lot of it was well worked out.

In short, the series is atmospheric and engaging, but that “engagement” is fleeting. For one thing, the main character is an out-of-control hero, and in that capacity Lin is interesting, charismatic, and everything else you’d expect from an escaped convict on the loose from a foreign land. It is quite another thing to have a badly directed, convoluted story. It can be tempting, of course, to say to oneself, “forget it, this is Bombay” and get lost in the mystery, but the moment you let yourself get lost in the series, you may remember that even film noir dramas like Chinatown – which is also about the opacity of a certain time and place – have a coherent, even linear narrative.

As a period drama, then, Shantaram is an interesting, atmospheric series, with a great lead performance by Charlie Hunnam and many, many memorable characters, and an exciting, absorbing setting, but it still fails to engage as much as other hit series because of its overly convoluted, incoherent story and frequent loss of central focus. At least this is the case in the first season, we’ll see if the sequel changes.


Shantaram S01

Direction - 7.2
Actors - 8.2
Story - 6.8
Visuals/Music/Sounds - 8.4
Ambience - 7.4



An interesting, atmospheric AppleTV+ series for a period drama, Shantaram stars Charlie Hunnam in a great lead role and has many memorable characters and an exciting, absorbing setting, but it still fails to engage as much as other hit series due to an overly convoluted, incoherent story and frequent loss of central focus. At least this is the case in the first season, we'll see if the sequel changes.

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BadSector is a seasoned journalist for more than twenty years. He communicates in English, Hungarian and French. He worked for several gaming magazines – including the Hungarian GameStar, where he worked 8 years as editor. (For our office address, email and phone number check out our impressum)

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