“Shantaram” – TV series review
“Shantaram” is an intense thriller series, filmed in Bhopal, India, but set in Mumbai back when it was called Bombay. It offers a gritty look at poverty, corruption and organized crime that many will find will be hard to get into, but well worth the effort. In Season One, protagonist Lin Ford (Charlie Hunnam) is on the lam from Australia for something we won’t learn about for a while. Upon arrival in India, he’s mugged and wakes up in one of Bombay’s poorest sections, luckily surrounded by kind-hearted locals. Without money or a passport, Lin makes himself useful to the community by using medical knowledge he’d acquired in an impoverished area lacking other access to treatment.
The time period isn’t specified but some references and the state of technology make it seem vaguely in the 1980s, before cell phones and widely-available internet access. That matches the experience of author Gregory David Roberts, who wrote the source novel of the same name based on his own life’s journey. That era was also better for Lin (logistically and dramatically) than a contemporary setting, since the search for him was harder for whoever was trying to find him, for whatever their reasons may have been. His time in Bombay landed him in the middle of a turf war between wealthy crime bosses competing to get richer, with that slum just happening to be on a section of land both want to develop. By whatever means necessary.
Crooked cops and politicians abound. Even the doctors at public hospitals won’t see poor patients without a bribe, making Lin’s services so vital to his new, unintended home. Besides the large number of actors with significant parts, getting on top of things is complicated by frequent cuts to other times and places, filling in backstories – often without much clarity as to where and when that scene is unfolding. Within the dozen 45-50 minute episodes are all the dramatic elements one would hope for – romance, violence, nobility of character, betrayals and a few surprises, amid tension galore.
Even without our knowing how he got there, Lin quickly establishes himself as a good guy to root for, much like David Janssen’s Dr. Kimble in “The Fugitive.” Within the first few episodes, we also meet his own Lt. Gerard in Wally Nightingale (David Field), an Aussie cop almost maniacally obsessed with catching our guy, no matter where in the world he must go to find him. Many other characters remain elusive as to their motives and place on the good-to-evil spectrum, adding to the suspense. We also get to know quite a few who earn our empathy.
Without disclosing specifics, we follow Lin through a constant stream of threats, seemingly flying at him incessantly and from all directions. He knows he’s in deep doo-doo, and much of his time is spent trying to get out of Bombay and India, frustrated by repeated setbacks in his plans. The season wraps up many plot points, while leaving viewers reasons to be curious about what may happen in Season Two.
Performances, settings and action are of feature-film quality, as we observe what seems to the hard, if not brutal, reality of poverty in India, and likely much of the rest of the world. Apple TV+ is releasing the first three episodes together, with the rest following weekly. Some may prefer waiting until more are in hand to keep plot threads fresh in the mind but the first three should hook many viewers with just enough of the backstories to feel grounded in Lin’s ordeals. This is not easy viewing, since bad things happen to undeserving victims – some quite harshly – but the texture of the tale is a rich one.
“Shantaram,” Season One, in English and Marathi with English subtitles, streams episodes 1-3 on Apple TV+ starting Friday, Oct. 14, with the remaining nine episodes released weekly thereafter.
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars